LONDON (Reuters) – Dominic Cummings, the mastermind of Brexit who openly scorned the British elite, is fighting for his job as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior adviser after claims he flouted the government’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
Cast, variously, as an anarchist, visionary, Britain’s Rasputin, a political vandal and even Johnson’s “brain”, Cummings has made a name for himself by deriding what he sees as the arrogant and inefficient British governing class.
But it was accusations of hubris in apparently flouting the government’s lockdown rules – which he helped craft – for at least one 400 km (250 mile) journey that may ultimately seal his fate.
Cummings, who has repeatedly refused to resign, entered Downing Street on Sunday after some Conservative Party lawmakers demanded he quit.
“It is intolerable that Boris’ government is losing so much political capital,” said Steve Baker, a Brexit-supporting lawmaker. “Dominic Cummings must go.”
Others were more brutal.
“It’s his cavalier ‘I don’t care; I’m cleverer than you’ tone that infuriates people,” Conservative lawmaker Simon Hoare said.
Cummings has said he acted responsibly and legally and on Saturday, when asked if he would resign, scolded reporters outside his house for getting the 2016 Brexit referendum wrong.
“Obviously not,” he said of resignation.
“You guys are probably all about as right about that as you were about Brexit: do you remember how right you all were about that?” Cummings said.
Still, Cummings has propelled Johnson into a crisis just as he tries to defend the government against claims from opposition parties and some scientists that he was too slow to impose a lockdown on the $3 trillion economy.
The United Kingdom has the worst official COVID-19 death toll in Europe.
Cummings, alongside fellow campaigner Matthew Elliott, drove Vote Leave to victory in the 2016 referendum. He is credited with coining the phrase: “Take back control”.
Behind his bluster, Cummings believes the elites of the West – and the United Kingdom in particular – are out of touch with voters and have consistently failed their people while bailing out big business.
He scorns the accepted Westminster dress code of a suit and tie, wearing jeans and t-shirts in Downing Street, often accompanied by an ill-fitting woolen hat.
Cummings also likes to berate reporters. In 2019, he told Reuters to stop asking about Brexit: “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich remainers.”
But he is more than a campaigner: he is one of the most powerful unelected officials in the United Kingdom. Opponents compare him to King Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell.
When asked by Reuters about comparisons with Cromwell earlier this year, Cummings just chuckled.
After Johnson won the top job in 2019, Cummings was brought into government at the very heart of British power.
He helped Johnson navigate the maze of Brexit which he provoked parliament into opposing, setting the scene for Johnson’s victory in the 2019 election.
Johnson won the biggest majority his party has achieved since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election victory. Inside Downing Street, Cummings treats the prime minister as an equal.
Such is Cummings’ importance that Johnson has mobilized the entire machinery of Downing Street to defend him. Senior ministers tweeted their support of Cummings and Johnson extended his “full confidence.”
Cummings is cast by allies and enemies as a ruthless strategist who cares little for the conventions of traditional British politics.
Known as “Dom” to his friends, who cast him as a visionary, former Prime Minister David Cameron said he was a “career psychopath.”
He has openly questioned the competence of Britain’s civil servants and scolded Conservative lawmakers for what he perceived as their stupidity and laziness. He once cast then Brexit Secretary David Davis as “thick as mince” and “as lazy as a toad”.
Cummings can be ruthless. He provoked a row inside Westminster last year when he sacked a 27-year-old adviser to then finance minister Sajid Javid.
The adviser, Sonia Khan, was escorted by armed police from Downing Street without Javid’s knowledge.
Cummings, 48, was born in the northern city of Durham.
He studied under eminent Oxford University historian Norman Stone and graduated with a ‘first’ – the top degree class awarded at British universities. He likes to pepper his eclectic writings with cultural references.
“We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modeling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project,” he once wrote.
After leaving university, he went to Russia for three years where he helped set up an airline in Samara. It failed.
Back in the United Kingdom, Cummings entered eurosceptic politics. He was campaign director for “Business for Sterling”, the campaign against joining the Euro. He then went to work for Michael Gove, now one of the most senior ministers in Johnson’s government.
“We need to reshape institutions so that they do not depend on sprinkling a layer of consultants on a broken bureaucracy to gerrymander management processes that ought to be in entry-level training for junior officials,” Cummings wrote in 2015.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Toby Chopra)