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Corona Diaries: we still need more people like Cummings, but not in government

May 27, 2020

I’ve written about Dominic Cummings only once before the current row blew up. It was at the time when Boris Johnson first employed him to be his senior adviser. I took a deliberately contrary view, which I continue to hold. Unlike him, I don’t amend my blog pieces to “correct the record”, except to fix the occasional grammatical or spelling howler.

In the light of the current furore, I think the post I wrote in September last year deserves a revisit. Under the heading of Why we need more people like Dominic Cummings, even if we can’t stand them, here’s what I wrote:

Depending on your political persuasion, Dominic Cummings is a genius (with evil as an optional qualifier), a political visionary or special adviser to the devil. What most people agree upon is that he has an unfortunate manner. I’ve never met him, so it’s not for me to comment on his personality. Others who have say that in his dealings with people he’s as subtle as a flying mallet. That’s certainly the impression you got from his portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War. And his behaviour in No 10 Downing Street would appear to bear out his reputation as a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – a fool being anyone who doesn’t see things his way.

This is a shame, because we need people like Cummings in politics. Spiky, contrary, full of ideas. Grit in the oyster. If you look at his website, as I have, you will find that nestling within the acres of self-justifying blather, there are some good ideas. Red teams, for example, specifically established to challenge conventional thinking and knock over ill-conceived projects; more diversity in combined honours university degrees; the use of interactive technology to aid decision-making; introducing technology-assisted data modelling into the schools curriculum. And that’s just stuff gleaned from two or three of his voluminous blog posts.

What is unfortunate is that most of his opinions are rinsed with contempt – particularly for politicians, the civil service, the educational establishment. Anyone, in fact, with the power to prevent his ideas from coming to fruition. Not unusual, because these days contempt seems to be the only common currency in our public discourse.

What’s also evident from the blog posts I’ve read is the absence of any evidence of personal values, morality or empathy, as displayed by Nicholas Soames who, when interviewed about his expulsion from the Conservative ranks in Parliament at Cummings’ behest, said that his executioner, the Chief Whip, was a “nice man and a personal friend”.

It’s not for me to suggest Boris Johnson’s powerful adviser sits somewhere on the autism scale. As I said, I don’t know him. But judging by the number of enemies he has made in a very short time, he can hardly be described as a people person, and surely not someone with the leadership skills to bring people with him through persuasion rather than compulsion.

And isn’t democratic politics the business of persuasion, even if decisions made through democratic processes require a measure of compulsion at the end of the line? Unfortunately for Cummings and Johnson, we have not reached the end of the line, and their attempts to short-circuit the process appear to have failed, unless, of course – as some have claimed – this was part of the cunning plan to win the next election without the stigma of having failed to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU by October 31st.

Either way, much as I reject the political wagon to which Cummings has hitched himself, I do believe that there should be a place in politics for people like him, however disagreeable he may appear to those who have to interact with him. But I would no more put him in a leadership role than I would appoint Dr Strangelove as my chief of staff. He belongs in one of his beloved Red Teams, employed to challenge the unchallengeable, demolish the consensus and force those who control our destinies to justify their proposals – publicly.

I’ve no idea whether he will stay or go. Boris has bet his personal prestige and authority on keeping him. But it isn’t just the usual suspects in the media who are howling for his head, despite the concerted avalanche of tweets heading their way under the hashtag of media scum. The animus against him is widespread.

My guess is that there will be some kind of fudge. An apology perhaps, or even a re-assignment that keeps him within the Prime Minister’s orbit. If there is a resignation, it could be designed so that he can return once “a decent period” has elapsed, has happened with previous favourites of a Prime Minister, such as Peter Mandelson, who blotted his copybook under Tony Blair. But Mandelson at the time was a cabinet minister. Cummings is an adviser.

He’ll be fine whatever the outcome. He does have valuable skills which some corporation or think tank will find useful, quite possibly in the US.

But of this I am certain. While Boris Johnson’s authority, which he never deserved in the first place, is rapidly dissolving, we have more important things to be concerned about. And the scary thing is that not a single member of his cabinet appears to have the ability or leadership skills to take up the slack should Boris prove incapable of weathering the storm.

Not an encouraging thought.

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    “…the use of interactive technology to aid decision-making; introducing technology-assisted data modelling into the schools curriculum…”
    would you could you should you see the way, explain the before to me?
    Your ever attentive nit-picker

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