On paper, he carries the lowly title of “assistant to the Prime Minister” but in becoming Boris Johnson’s most trusted aide, Dominic Cummings has become so powerful as to seem nigh on untouchable.
Of making mistakes, Mr Johnson once commented: “Nothing excites compassion, in friend and foe alike, as much as the sight of you ker-splonked on the Tarmac with your propeller buried six feet under.” Yet in Cummings’ case, it appears he is determined to make an exception – for the time being, at least.
The alacrity with which No 10 and the Cabinet have thrown their support behind the former Vote Leave svengali – insisting, in fact, that he had done the right thing, according to the fine print of the rules – keenly demonstrates the importance to Johnson’s Government of the man David Cameron once described as a “career psychopath”.
Insisting that a Covid-ridden Mr Cummings behaved “reasonably and legally” in travelling from London to Durham with his wife and son to stay in a building that is part of the family farm, Downing Street denied reports that he was spoken to by the police about the matter, claiming it was “essential” that they travelled to his family home to ensure his child could be properly cared for in case the condition of both parents deteriorated.
Mr Johnson hired Mr Cummings after becoming Prime Minister last July because he was the man who promised to ‘get Brexit done’ and help Johnson deliver a revolutionary legacy. He was so impressed by the Durham-born Oxford graduate’s insatiable desire to shake things up, his ability to push through projects and direct change, he even signed a contract giving him “special powers”. Not only was Mr Cummings to have authority over all other ‘SpAds’ (special advisors), he was also given jurisdiction over government projects such as ARPA – the Tories’ pledge to recreate ‘America’s Advanced Research Projects Agency’ in Britain and other projects, including reform of the civil service.
In the post-Covid era, Mr Cummings remains Mr Johnson’s eyes and ears, attending all the key committees involved in the Government’s response to the global pandemic. So it was hardly surprising when it emerged that Mr Cummings had been digitally attending some meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – much to the chagrin of his many critics.
Those who dislike him claim that the man who promises to “get things done” hasn’t exactly had a stellar run overseeing the Government’s Covid strategy. As one sernior Tory put it on Saturday: “The Cummings operation is good for campaigning but not for governing. It feels like this Government is really struggling.” Another was even less charitable: “He promised the PM he would take control of the civil service but look at how that’s worked out? He hasn’t got the PPE (personal protective equipment) done, he hasn’t got the test, track and tracing done, but what he has done is dragged down the PM’s reputation with him.”
Harsh words which may not necessarily be echoed within the corridors of power, when Mr Cummings assumes a near God-like status among his Vote Leave comrades and other supporters.
His allies argue that he inherited a dysfunctional and broken government machine that was prepared to fight the last war and was operationally unable to rise to the current challenge. They claim that he is working flat out to rectify this, and that his illness slowed down progress.
Described as “incredibly driven, motivated and incredibly bright,” Mr Cummings’ clarity of thought and willingness to challenge decisions has certainly endeared him to the PM along with his Robespierre-like determination to change things that don’t work. Yet when the Government’s problem-solver in chief starts making problems for the PM, what’s the solution?
One former Downing Street aide on Friday night pointed out that “no one is unsackable”. “The PM has never been under any illusions about Dom. There will always come a point – it may not be now – but there will come a point when the PM will turn around and say: ‘You’re doing me more harm than good’,” the aide added.
“Boris can be ruthless when he wants to be. He isn’t blind loyal to anyone. At the end of the day, no one is bigger than the Prime Minister.”
For now, though, Johnson, no stranger to getting into scrapes himself, is standing squarely behind the second most-important figure in his Government.