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Who is Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's new chief advisor?

Dominic Cummings has made an unlikely return to government, and not everyone is happy about it
Dominic Cummings has made an unlikely return to government, and not everyone is happy about it Credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

For the past three years, since the result of the EU referendum, Dominic Cummings has been at home, looking after his young son and fantasising about a return to government. 

His thoughts on everything in that period, from AI to Chinese politics, are documented on his blog, where his posts -wrapped up in complex theory borrowed from army generals, psychologists and management theorists - run to thousands of words.

Although Cummings is known in the corridors of Westminster as a former special advisor and director of Vote Leave, he avoids the cameras and media.

Friends describe him as a private person, who prefers to keep his personal life out of newspapers. 

Until a Channel 4 docu-drama fronted by Benedict Cumberbatch made Dominic Cummings’ face, and scruffy attire, recognisable in British politics he shied from the limelight.

'I have never seen Dom wear a tie': Cummings' penchant for scruffy jeans and unironed shirts has become notorious in Westminster Credit: Simon Dawson/Reuters

But while they might not know his CV, voters across the country will know Cummings’ work - a big red bus advertising the £350m the UK government sends to the European Union each week, and one of the most brutal cabinet reshuffles in recent years.

He is Boris Johnson’s new right hand man, and the advisor at the centre of government.

Insiders suspect a “deal was done” that gives him control over government appointments in Number 10, and veto power over which MPs have Cabinet roles.

While he was once popular as a leader of an insurgent campaign, staff in government are “petrified” of him and MPs believe that if they cross him, they will be deselected, it is claimed.

So who is Dominic Cummings, the man Boris Johnson believes will help him deliver Brexit?

'He could have ended up as a dictator of a far-off country'

Dominic Cummings was born in Durham in 1971, to an oil rig project manager and a special educational needs teacher. 

He went to Durham School before going up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1991. 

There, he earned a reputation for being intelligent and argumentative that would follow him for the rest of his career.

“In a situation where there were quite a lot of middle class public school people kicking around, he was quite edgy,” said a former student who knew Cummings at Oxford.

Cummings attended the 600-year-old Durham School, followed by Exeter College, Oxford Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

“It could have been anything and he would have just presented a new and slightly unorthodox take on it.”

“He challenged ideas, and made one of our tutors chuckle.”

Unlike his future bosses, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, Cummings opted not to run for the Oxford Union, or climb the ranks of one of the other student politics societies. 

Instead, he could be found in the college bar, arguing.

“He was much funnier and cooler than I was,” a friend says.  

“He somehow managed to come in and be both radical and funny and forthright, and it was easy to see how he could end up advising the Prime Minister.

“He could have ended up doing something crazy, like being a dictator of a far-off country. That wouldn’t be that surprising.” 

But perhaps tellingly, while his fellow students remember him as a drinker and a skillful raconteur, a tutor remembers him quite differently.

Michael Hart, who taught him modern history, remembers a “very clever student,” who was “very enjoyable to teach” and would stay long past the end of the hour-long tutorial to debate the week’s essay.

“I don’t think he’s obsessive,” says Hart. “He’s just very determined.”

After Oxford, Cummings headed to Russia, where he helped set up an airline.

“He seemed to have quite a healthy ego, and in Moscow he was working for some sort of startup,” says a friend who knew him there. 

“I remember being quite impressed that without speaking Russian he had managed to get himself set up in quite a senior position.”

It is rumoured the airline only flew once, and in 1999 Cummings moved back to the UK, where he worked for Business for Sterling, a campaign against joining the Euro, and as a special advisor for Iain Duncan Smith, whom he later described in The Telegraph as “incompetent”.

But it was in his role as a campaigner against a North-East assembly in 2004, working with his friend James Frame, that Cummings learned a key lesson about politics.

Cummings, pictured in 2001 as campaign director of Business for Sterling, his first political campaign Credit: David Levenson/Getty

The pair commissioned a huge white elephant, which they took with them around north east England, showing it to voters.

It made the case that the assembly was itself a white elephant - a waste of taxpayers’ money.

It appeared in newspaper photos, on news bulletins and provided a talking point in an otherwise dry series of arguments about devolution. 

The idea of a headline-grabbing prop was banked, and became the inspiration for perhaps one of the most controversial vehicles in British political history: a red bus demanding more money for the NHS.

“You can see exactly the same strategy in Vote Leave,” says a friend.

“It was the big red bus. How do we take this esoteric subject and get it on the front pages, get it talked about by people in pubs and bars and on the street, and over the kitchen table?” 

It was a stunt that would make Cummings famous more than 10 years later.

Dominic Cummings vs. the Blob

At the Department for Education, where Cummings worked from 2007 to 2014 as an advisor to then education secretary Michael Gove, he is remembered with trepidation.

Cummings’ hatred of the unions, expressed through his Secretary of State, produced a sizeable tranche of teachers who thought that Gove was “doing to children what Thatcher did to the miners”.

A leaked email showed Cummings in turn ranting about teachers’ "refusal to face reality over grade inflation and the dumbing down of exams,” driving the narrative that teachers were an intractable barrier to reform.

Cummings 'bludgeoned' through some of Michael Gove's most controversial reforms at the Department for Education Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe

But while Gove became increasingly unpopular with the teachers he legislated for, internal disputes between staff and Cummings also made him enemies.

Cummings for the first time faced what would become a long-sworn enemy of his: the civil service.

Education policymakers remember a time when Cummings would “bludgeon” reforms through the department. Civil servants advised the education secretary to slow the pace of change.

In return, Cummings described the unions and the civil service as “the blob”, in a reference to the 1958 Steve McQueen film about an amoeba that eats up the world. 

He emerged from government with the belief that the department would function better if it was shrunk.

The best decision he ever made

It was while working for Gove that Cummings made what one government insider calls the best decision he ever made.

In 2011, he married Mary Wakefield, the daughter of a baronet and the assistant editor of the Spectator. 

Her support, and income, would put him in a position to prepare for his next job, at Vote Leave. 

“Because she’s comfortably off, that’s given him the space to take risks but also to take time and think,” says a friend. 

“I don’t know how he affords his leisure time, but he reads a lot and thinks a lot and does all these focus groups."

The two had their first child while Cummings was running the referendum campaign.

Cummings dashed off for two days to be with Mary, answering texts and emails from staff while at the hospital. 

“As soon as he knew everything was alright he was very quickly back in it, and she was very supportive of him and the cause,” said a friend.

Taking back control

That cause was Vote Leave, which Cummings ran with Matthew Elliott, formerly of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, from a tower on the bank of the Thames.

By the time volunteers began to join the campaign, it already had its three key elements: the name, Vote Leave, its slogan, “Take Back Control”, and the infamous figure of £350m.

Cummings' infamous 'big red bus', bearing the campaigns controversial £350m claim Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty

Cummings was popular with staff. Every Friday, one person would be sent to collect beer for the office, and the team would sit and consider how to get into the Remain campaign’s decision-making "OODA loop", a technique Cummings learned from American military strategist John Boyd. 

Staff would come up with false rumours that could be planted in the media or rows that could be concocted to stay ahead in the press over the weekend. 

It was just one way that Cummings designed the Vote Leave campaign to eschew conventional wisdom.

Volunteers had access to a bespoke computer system dreamed up by Cummings, which allowed them to rank each street in the UK by its likelihood to vote Leave.

It was designed to emulate the knowledge political parties build up over decades by running general election campaigns, but which Vote Leave generated in just a few months.

Vote Leave poured much of its budget into digital ads in the so-called “air war” - communication directly with voters.

Cummings was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Channel 4 drama 'Brexit: An Uncivil War' Credit: Television Stills/Nick Wall

By using targeted Facebook ads, Cummings squeezed as much value as he could from donors’ money.

It was an approach that he championed from the start and which upset Leave-backing MPs, but he held firm.

One source who knows Cummings in his current role in Downing Street said: “I’m sure he likes the power but what drives him is being right. 

“His ideas being right and being able to win is really important to him.”

'I have never seen Dominic wear a tie'

The Tory leadership election that followed the EU referendum pitted Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the two highest-profile Leave backers, against each other.

Although Cummings was closer to Gove, he knew Boris well and built up a “good trusted relationship,” a friend says.

“He was closest to Gove obviously - he had known him for 20 years by that point, but he knew Boris as well, I suppose through Mary and the Spectator.” 

Cummings and his wife often had dinner and drinks with Boris.

As Boris strode into Number 10 last month, Cummings could be seen waiting behind the door for him to arrive, applauding his friend. 

Dominic Cummings, right, behind new prime minister Boris Johnson Credit: Reuters

He also confirmed a suspicion in the Westminster village: that he will never dress smartly. 

He was photographed wheeling a suitcase into Number 10, wearing a creased shirt and old jeans.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dominic wear a tie,” a friend says. “He has no time or concern for those trappings.

“He’s not scruffy, but he’s not bothered by the formality and the convention. If it’s comfortable, if it’s warm and its keeping the rain off then it works.”

Cummings now has the task of helping to deliver Brexit, overseeing appointments to Number 10 and coordinating special advisors across government, who have been told they must report directly to him.

“He says, we don’t quite trust the civil servants, so we ask you what's happening in your department,” said one insider, who described his approach as “bizarre”.

Unlike at Vote Leave, where he is remembered as a collegiate leader with time for his staff and a hatred of hierarchy, Cummings now scares advisors, who feel they could lose their jobs at any time.

Earlier this week, two who were appointed when Boris Johnson became prime minister were sacked. 

Cummings was spotted on Downing Street with a Vote Leave tote bag Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images Europe

One insider describes him as sacking people at random to prop up the Cummings “myth”, while taking orders from him is "like listening to someone at some minor accountancy firm".

In a recent meeting, he recommended a management book from a Silicon Valley executive to a room full of special advisors, to widespread incredulity.

But although not everyone likes him, “they know he believes in Brexit”, said a sceptic.

The man who told Britain why it should vote to leave the EU is finally instrumental in the government that will do it.