It might have a prosaic name: but the “Joint Commons select committee inquiry into the handling of Covid-19” on Wednesday morning is the most hotly anticipated revenge drama of recent political times. Giving evidence to agog MPs is Dominic Cummings, once so close to the Prime Minister that he told a former party leader of the 2016 Leave campaign in the EU referendum, “Dom won it for me”, yet now so reviled that the same PM undertook a bitter, briefing campaign of newspapers recently to denounce Cummings as the “chatty rat” leaking a toxic load of secrets from Downing Street.
Twitter retribution has been the pre-battle modus operandi for Cummings, the PM’s former strategy boss and mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign strategy which carried Britain out of the EU in 2016. The ousted adviser has already posted a long and detailed series of accusations in threads, all pointing at the same goal - the misjudgments, evasions and “unethical” conduct of the PM in the Covid crisis and an alleged cover-up over whether the Government’s early strategy was reliance on allowing a managed rate of infections to achieve “herd immunity” - a theory which was soon ditched as reckless and ineffective.
It is not the first time Cummings has taken fire at those for whom he has formerly served as an advisor. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader for whom Cummings worked and then denounced as unfit to lead the party, tells me, “it’s always the same story but this time with a far higher stakes and a bigger scalp. Once he decides that he disagrees with you, you become the enemy, pure and simple. You are not just mistaken or flawed - you’re the fool who must be destroyed. Dominic can’t salvage his own reputation without bringing down the leader.”
Cummings duly tore into Duncan Smith as unfit to lead the Tories - “Incompetent .. must be replaced” - and later dished out a similar hammering to David Cameron as “a sphinx without a riddle”. But the present reckoning - what one senior Number 10 figure calls “Dom’s Terminator rampage” against Johnson - has become a feud between the two men which is a powerful and poisonous mix of the personal and the professional. Few doubt that the man himself, as his Twitter feed suggests, has garnered evidence, including Whatsapp messages and possibly recordings, to back up his claims that the government had relied on “herd immunity” strategy to defeat Covid early last year and resisted advice to lockdown harder in the autumn.
“He records everything,” says one former ally. “And unlike a lot of people who leave this place (Downing Street), he has no hesitation about dishing out sensitive or damaging information.” The statute of limitations most politicians observe when they leave the revenge eaten-cold for their memoirs is, in the case of ‘Dom’ consumed very hot indeed.”
What motivates a figure who, even his many enemies admit, is highly intelligent and has a proven nose for sniffing out an appetite among voters for changes which career politicians do not spot or baulk at? I have seen both sides of Cummings’ character over sporadic encounters down the years. We both come from County Durham, where he worked shifts for his uncle who owned the Klute nightclub. It’s the kind of place favoured for a late-night stomp but also endearingly naff - the uni students used to call their disco footwear “Klute boots” on the grounds that you needed something robust to navigate dancing on the sticky floor. It was owned by his Uncle Phil - the Cummingss are a close-knit, commercially-minded family - and ‘Dom’ helped on the door, taking the entrance fees. He told the local student paper it was “the best nightclub in Europe” (though an irreverent survey once dubbed it the worst).
He grew up in comfortable circumstances - “posh for Durham” as a neighbour wryly puts it - in a Grade 2 town house in the centre of the city, His father, Robert, had managerial roles on an oil rig and a glass company and some modest investments. His mother Morag, a strong motivating force in his academic success, was a special needs teacher. When his father semi-retired they moved to farmland outside the city - the destination of the ill-starred trip north to Barnard Castle during lockdown. He went to the private Durham School, where he was remembered as bright, a “bit cocky and not very keen on rowing” (the school’s main local claim to fame). But his more radical streak would emerge at Oxford, where he enjoyed being taught Ancient and Modern History by the maverick Conservative don Norman Stone and enjoying late-night drinking and smoking sessions in a group calling themselves “the wastrels”.
Meeting him after the college years at a small dining club, he could be funny with a desire to shock - I think he took being a bit offensive as a badge of honour and his turn of insulting phrase could be mordantly incisive. He could also be a bit vulnerable - for someone who dishes out a lot of trouble, he is still sensitive to slights and bears grudges for decades.
The mythology of a tough northerner belies that prosperous upbringing. And having made the same 260-plus mile journey from the north-east via Oxford to a London career, I can hazard that he still feels the desire to leave his mark on the “in-crowd” hence hankered to join - but which he also feels superior towards and increasingly wants to prove wrong.
It is however paradoxical that his power to wound still comes from alliances to a political ascendancy from which he is now alienated. “He has flashes of ideas, but can’t sustain them because he doesn’t really understand how people work or how you get them onside to deliver on a big idea,” says Iain Duncan Smith. The shambolic dress sense - a kind of “anti-fashion” flair which would see him leaving home in Canonbury one day in a rakish country-house summer hat and the next in a scruffy puffer jacket. All this looked more attention grabbing against the backdrop of orthodox smart-suits in Westminster than for a laptop crusader, working out of home study. He once showed up at a party given by Rupert Murdoch not long ago wearing a dirty jumper full of holes and specialised in the habit of late entrances to set-piece events. “There is a kind of nose-thumbing which is reflexive,” says an old university friend from Exeter College Oxford. “But he’s nearly 50 now so it’s less cool than it used to look!”
Two of his intellectual heroes are Lenin (for his revolutionary drive and understanding of historical forces) and Bismarck (for his steely strategic nous). Phoning up Cummings when he was theoretically unemployed, as the Vote Leave campaign wound up in triumph to ask him to turn up for a documentary on the referendum, the answer was, “Too busy reading Bismarck on grand strategy”.
His time in government has also accelerated a tendency to see the political and media class as fools or knaves. So his afterlife - besides a bloodthirsty quest for revenge which he believes is a reckoning with a lazy and unprincipled PM - is also driven by a wider project. He truly does believe that the clunky machinery of modern government is inadequate to the task of delivering on better public services and for electorates - rather like a maverick Silicon Valley high-flier in the Elon Musk mould, with a Promethean desire to reform by great leaps, rather than small steps. He has embraced the idea of a radically de-siloed way of approaching policy problems - embracing an “Odyssean education” based on synthesising commonalities between problems and diminishing reliance on the Westminster and Whitehall “factory” of PPE and humanities graduates in top roles.
The exotic, devil-may-care attitude is balanced with a placid, uxorious home life with his wife, the Spectator journalist Mary Wakefield in a pleasant street of houses off in Canonbury, Islington. They are, on the face of it very different characters but a happy duo - she’s the polished product of Wycombe Abbey, impeccably groomed in country-house chic (her father owns one of the biggest piles in Northumberland, Chillingham Castle complete with its wild cattle, tapestries and armoury) and a meticulous copy editor. They enjoy their status as a well-connected couple around politics . “They get a lot of invites,” says one acquaintance, “because people are fascinated by the monstrous reputation of Dom and charmed by Mary” And if she offsets his tendency to be rebarbative, she’s also a firm ally of his ambitions.
For all Cummings’ laddishness, it “was reading a manual on how to adjust to having a baby which gave him the idea for the decisive: “Take back control” motto in 2016. He dotes on their small son Alexander, who was also the proximate reason for the infamous 260 mile drive to Durham last year. Cummings said he wanted to secure better child care for the boy in the lockdown when Wakefield was starting to show Covid symptoms and he thought he might also have contracted the virus. Unaccountably, the self-isolation featured a day trip to Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight”. One Cummings-hostile near neighbour in Islington recounts seeing him on the street after the fiasco and marching to give the reprobate a piece of his mind. As he approached, he heard Cummings chatting away in character from a children’s TV show to the toddler dawdling alongside him. “I backed off, thinking was some sort of nice guy in there, even if it is heavily disguised,” he sighs.
He is capable of loyalty, but only on his own mercurial terms. Some believe that while his political relationship with his old boss Michael Gove is on pause, the two are still in regular contact with an eye on the possibility of future upheavals or opportunities, if ill fate should ever befall Boris. Gove is probably the only serving senior Tory Dominic has intellectual respect for, says a mutual friend.
Many past allies of Cummings are however cautious about lending their weight to the present quest for retribution. The most prominent, Lee Cain, who was ousted from Number 10 last November in the same clear-out after rows about the role and influence of “First Fiancée” Carrie Symonds has conspicuously not joined in Cummings’ J’accuse against their former boss. “The word is that Johnson has let it be known there is a way back for Cain,” says one Number 10 source. “But for Dominic, no way, it’s pure hatred.”
By the same token, his relationship with the party he has long seen as a vehicle for radicalism is more fraught than ever. “I don’t actually rate the Conservative Party very highly,” he once quipped to me at an event during which he was being lauded as the coming thing in its ranks. Paul Goodman, director of the Conservative Home website, summarizes the grassroot members’ view, based on a recent survey its regular panel undertook as, “pleased he was there (for the referendum and in Downing Street) and pleased he has gone. They don’t really like the disloyalty and there is the lingering smell of that Barnard Castle trip, which dented his reputation. He’s not exactly seen as a disinterested expression of the public good.”
Johnson’s success in recent local elections, especially in the Red Wall” seats of former Labour strongholds is also a message to Cummings. “I get along without you very well, of course I do,” jokes one MP, referencing the bitter-sweet Chet Baker song about a broken (b)romance. “The grudge goes so deep because they are both rule-breakers who have reshaped politics - but are also a bit sociopathic in their dealings with others.”
Number 10’s damage-limitation plans are based on denying Cummings’ accounts or claiming that he was not always as physically present at key events or meetings as his swashbuckling account of a ringside seat suggests. “In some ways, he’s shooting the fox for them,” ventures a civil servant involved. “When an inquiry finally happens, a lot of the contested decisions will have already been aired”.
That, however, does not preclude anxiety this week that Cummings’ knowledge of potentially embarrassing conversations and witnessing of Johnson’s mercurial moods and erratic attention span could paint an unappealing picture. The resurfacing of a story that Johnson took time off during crucial COBRA top-level planning meetings on Covid because he was under pressure to deliver on his book about Shakespeare and needed the big advance to fund his divorce indicated Cummings is prepared to attack Johnson on personal failings, as well as policy misjudgments. “It’s a full-on knife fight,” concludes an insider who worked closely with both combatants. “And yes, there will be blood.”
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist