How Dominic Cummings became indispensable to Boris Johnson

Heather Stewart
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

In Downing Street on Brexit night, 31 January this year, while Boris Johnson sounded a gong and quaffed Chateau Margaux, Dominic Cummings reportedly wept.

For Johnson, getting Brexit done was part and parcel of achieving his long-held ambition to be prime minister (the next best thing to “world king”, as the young Johnson once put it).

But for Cummings, breaching the union with the EU 27 fulfilled a long-held conviction – and, he hoped, opened up a once-in-a-generation opportunity of radical political reform.

The two men are very different. Johnson courts approval; Cummings disdains it. Yet the prime minister, 55, has come to rely heavily on the 48-year-old Cummings, whom he first witnessed on the political frontline during the EU referendum campaign.

Indeed, there could be no stronger indication of Johnson’s fealty to his adviser than the fact he chose to throw a protective ring of cabinet ministers around him this weekend rather than demand his resignation.

For much of the tight-knit team around Johnson, that referendum summer of 2016 was the defining moment of their lives – a David and Goliath struggle in which they pitched themselves against the might of a lavishly-funded remain campaign.

As Paul Stephenson, Vote Leave’s director of communications, who was present at the Downing Street party, tweeted the next day: “Total outsiders in a shell of an office took on the entire establishment and won … and now the gang are making history.”

The result vindicated the team’s sense that they understood the concerns of rank-and-file British voters better than many slicker communicators – David Cameron, George Osborne – who believed themselves to be masters of the art of politics.

Indeed, in temperament and mindset, the Vote Leavers had much in common with Jeremy Corbyn’s cadre of aides, as they took on Theresa May’s government 12 months later.

There was an us-against-the-world sense of camaraderie, an appetite for taking risks and an almost gleeful contempt for the political consensus of the past 40 years – including the tribal party loyalties that usually demarcate Westminster politics.

Eton and Oxford-educated Johnson was the Conservative mayor of London when he resigned to join his fortunes with Vote Leave; Cummings too is an Oxford graduate, and his father-in-law owns a castle – but both believed themselves to be outside the “political elite”.

And after their victory in 2016, the Vote Leavers defined themselves and others by which side they had stood on in that torrid summer, and how hard they had fought.

Cummings, whose contempt for MPs is legendary, retreated to the sidelines for much of the ensuing three years, as the details of the withdrawal agreement were worked out in negotiations, and then torn to pieces again by the Tory party.

But after May resigned a year ago and Johnson took over, Cummings’s appointment was one of the first he made – and sent a clear signal that his would be a Vote Leave government.

With Brexit still hanging in the balance, Johnson valued Cummings’s absolute commitment to the cause. But with no majority and a deeply divided party, he also knew he would need to fight a general election in short order – and Cummings is the consummate campaigner.

For Cummings, the call to Johnson’s side in Downing Street last July was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not just to “get Brexit done”, the ringing election slogan that party legend says was first uttered by a participant in one of his beloved focus groups, but to pursue his other intellectual preoccupation – reshaping the British state.

So total was Cummings’s commitment that he postponed elective surgery in order to take the job.

The 2019 election manifesto was peppered with his obsessions, from ensuring government made better use of data science to rebalancing the economy away from London and shaking up “the broader aspects of our constitution” after Brexit.

Other aspects of the programme, including ditching austerity, reflected long-held preoccupations of the prime minister. But it is unclear even to close colleagues what a Johnson prospectus, shorn of Cummings’s influence, would have looked like.

So perhaps it is not surprising that, despite musing at last year’s Tory conference that he might not return after the general election campaign, Cummings was back at No 10 in January, seeking applications from “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to work with him in remaking Whitehall.

With a comfortable majority, there was an opportunity to pursue some of his preoccupations – including boosting state investment in science and shaking up government departments.

Johnson has not always gone along with Cummings’s wilder schemes: many of the most radical plans for overhauling Whitehall were ditched in place of modest tweaks, for example.

But Cummings is ever-present, and his ability to slice through the complexities of day-by-day challenges is highly prized by Johnson, who is not known for his attention to detail.

And just as for Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who served May before being ousted after the 2017 election, and indeed for Corbyn’s chief aide, Seumas Milne, too, the boss’s confidence brings with it immense power.

One former cabinet minister described Cummings’s attention sweeping across their department like the Eye of Sauron, in The Lord of the Rings.

When Boris Johnson carried out a ruthless reshuffle three months ago, it was an open secret that Sajid Javid, the chancellor, resigned more because he had fallen out with Cummings than over any beef with the prime minister.

Javid was told he must sack his aides and instead employ a team hand-picked by Johnson (for which, read Cummings). Instead, he chose to resign. It was such an open secret, in fact, that he subsequently joked in his resignation speech about “Cummings and goings” at the heart of government.

More recently, it was Cummings who sat on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) as the prime minister’s eyes and ears (and sometimes, it appears, mouthpiece).

And insiders say it was Cummings, above all, who persuaded the laissez-faire, anti-nanny state prime minister to go for an all-out lockdown – not least because his focus groups were telling him the public wanted clear instructions. That now looks ironic, to say the least.