Shaven-headed, scruffy, softly spoken Dominic Cummings is the key operator behind Brexit and the British Conservative landslide election victory. Now the chief strategy advisor to Boris Johnson is preparing for his most ambitious mission yet.
Boris Johnson has won a famous Conservative victory but will he be a Cameron-style squish or a Thatcher-style radical?
For the most plausible answer, you should ignore all the contradictory rumours currently flying around Westminster, and instead listen to a highly revealing talk given in London five years ago to a left-wing think tank the IPPR by Dominic Cummings.
Shaven-headed, scruffy, softly spoken, irascible, thoughtful Cummings is the most brilliant and successful strategist in British politics. As advisor to Michael Gove, he was partially responsible for the only real achievement of Cameron era - educational reform. He then went on to mastermind the Leave campaign in the EU referendum and is widely credited as the main reason that Brexit won. Now, as chief strategy advisor to Boris Johnson, he is preparing for his most ambitious mission yet: the complete transformation of the British political system so that, for a change, it works in the interests of those it is supposed to serve - not the elite, but the people.
The problem with Westminster politics, as Cummings outlines in his IPPR talk, is that it's run by the same kind of people with the same educational backgrounds, with little if any real-world experience of successful business practice, driven by narrow, short-term, party-driven objectives, working with teams of incompetents.
And that's just the politicians. An even bigger obstacle, Cummings believes, is the permanent administrative class, the Civil Service. As Cummings once said: "It keeps out great people, it hoards power to a small number of people who are increasingly crap. And the management of the whole thing is increasingly farcical, like that of any closed bureaucracy keeping its perks. It cannot manage public services, it cannot deal with counter-terrorism. It’s programmed to fail – and it does.”
Cummings first formed this view while working as an advisor in the Cameron Coalition, when he was driven to apoplexy by the way - just like on the British Eighties satirical comedy series Yes, Minister - the Civil Service appeared to take such quiet delight in sabotaging anything the government was trying to achieve. His outspoken style did not endear him to his superiors: Cameron - whom Cumming had once called a 'sphinx without a riddle' - described him as a 'career psychopath'; deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said he had 'anger management problems'.
That was back in the early 2010s. Since then, Cummings' reforming zeal can only have intensified thanks to the extraordinary period of institutional sclerosis which came close to killing Brexit altogether. Remainer Prime Minister Theresa May, in cahoots with a Remainer Civil Service and a Remain-dominated parliament, whose procedures were controlled and suborned by a Remainer Speaker John Bercow, managed to make an utter mockery of British democracy and brought the country close to constitutional crisis.
One of the new administration's primary missions is to make sure this can never happen again. Cummings will be the man to ensure that it doesn't, probably using tactics similar to the 'Al Capone' ones once advocated by his friend and admirer Michael Gove: "Find the toughest guy in the room. Embrace him like a brother. And then slam his head against the wall."
Though Cummings is well-read and cerebral, he is also a bruiser - once supposedly working as a doorman at his uncle's nightclub Klute (reputedly the second-worst in Europe) in the northern university town of Durham. He doesn't suffer fools, gets the job done and anyone who stands in his way gets crushed - as witness the way he brutally neutered Nigel Farage's Brexit Party in the general election.
Now, it's the Civil Service's turn to get the Cummings treatment. Cummings thinks it's an institution almost perfectly designed to generate failure: no one is ever sacked (they're just shuffled to another department); it promotes conformism and rejects dissenters with original ideas; it is process-driven, not goal-driven; it is bloated and overpaid.
His proposed solutions are radical: a mass refocusing of goals, redolent of when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and ruthlessly pared down its product range; reducing the size of every government department by half; the axing of the 'permanent civil service' - all those overmighty mandarins who effectively ran the May and Cameron governments.
Just like Donald Trump, in other words, the Boris Johnson administration is on a mission to drain the swamp.