Normal people need not apply. That was the gist of the job advert that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, posted just a few weeks ago, calling for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos” to join him in No.10; people who wouldn’t mind working all hours, who would sacrifice the chance of holding down a steady relationship, and who would generally just prostrate themselves before the Dom.
Even more striking than the content of the advert, though, was the place it appeared. Cummings published it on his personal blog, adding an unofficial Gmail address to the end by way of a rebellious flourish.
This was, as you keep on hearing nowadays, classic Dom. The blog post was his way of bypassing the traditional routes – the HR managers, the checkboxes, etc. – and of leveraging the economies of social media. It was marvelled at on Twitter, then reported in newspapers, then marvelled at again. It probably reached hundreds of thousands of people. Why publish a traditional advert on a dusty government website when you can achieve that level of reach for basically no cost? (And why, for that matter, spend money on old-fashioned billboard posters during an election campaign when you can smear your message across people’s Facebook feeds?)
Cummings’s blog demonstrates this thinking – but also more. Over the course of six years, from both inside and outside government, he’s recorded his experiences, opinions, ideas and inspirations there. It’s rare for anyone in public life to have provided such a repository of information about themselves, let alone someone at the right hand of the prime minister. So we decided to give it a read.
The first thing to say about Cummings’ blog is that… oh, dear me, there’s a lot of it. Almost a quarter of a million words, or even more if you count the PDFs that he links to on occasion, which we haven’t for the purposes of the graphic above.
The second thing is that this is not the sort of blog that’s updated regularly with short snippets about the writer’s life. Instead, it is updated sporadically – generally dependent on the nature and demands of Cummings’ job at the time – and those updates are mostly sprawling, meandering mega-essays. His longest post is 22,309 words long. The average across all 89 posts is 2,719 words – which is almost twice the length of what you’re reading right now.
Cummings defines himself as, well, undefined. “I’m not Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else,” he writes in one of his posts. But this doesn’t mean that he’s without an agenda; or, as he styles it, “I follow projects I think are worthwhile.” Reading his writing, you can see which projects he’s been following with particular eagerness, some of which are now being co-opted as government policy.
His running infatuation with DARPA – the US Department of Defense’s (kinda hands-off) technological research wing, which is credited with laying the groundwork for everything from the Internet to autonomous motoring – is one example. Already, an £800-million UK equivalent has been mooted by the Johnson government; the realisation, potentially, of an idea that Cummings was promoting on his blog five years ago.
Some of Cummings’ big ideas are more hidden. The word “tax” only comes up 44 times in his writing – and, even then, it’s often deployed in compound words such as “taxpayer” or to decry David Cameron’s decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p in 2013. But it’s worth noting that two of the mentions (both in the same 2014 post) come in the context of a “negative income tax”, by which people who fall below a certain level of income receive extra pay from the government instead of paying taxes. If this came to pass – and that’s a big if – it would reconfigure the workings of the British welfare system.
Ah, immigration. Sometimes immigration appears to be a keystone for Cummings’ policy agenda, just as it was a keystone for the Vote Leave campaign he oversaw. It’s there twice in one of the most significant paragraphs in all his posts; significant because it’s one of the few places where he summarises his politics (rather than elaborating on them with references to theoretical physics and Tolstoy) and also because it now reads like test run for the Johnson campaign.
There’s another part of that paragraph that stands out: the description of an “agenda that could not be described as Left or Right”. This is another leitmotif of Cummings’ blog, to the point that he’s spoken longingly about an “anti-party” that exists beyond the traditional political spectrum and which follows the management principles that put a man on the moon. You’ve got to wonder whether the Conservative Party is now the object of this experiment, and whether it will participate willingly.
And, of course, Cummings also writes at length about the policy he’s already had the chance to implement, back when he was an adviser to Michael Gove: decentralised academies and free schools. It’s clear that he regards that particular project as incomplete, so perhaps he might return to it now he’s in government again.
The worst political divides are always between people who are meant to be on the same side, and so it is with Cummings. Until the “batsignal” post he published during the recent general election campaign, he barely had anything unkind to say about the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He saved it for David Cameron. A large portion of the blog is given over to personal attacks on Cameron and his closest advisers. (Who, on occasion, have attacked back: at a party in 2014, Cameron referred to Cummings as a “career psychopath”.)
When it comes to the quantity of attacks, the other party leader of the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, is second only to David Cameron on Cummings’ hit list. When it comes to the viciousness of those attacks? Clegg might shade it. Cummings regards him as a once-terrible impediment to Gove’s school reforms.
Perhaps the most vicious words of all, however, are reserved for political figures who supported Leave during the referendum campaign but who didn’t do enough to support, or just flat-out obstructed, Vote Leave as the official campaign. This list includes the old UKIP brigade, Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks, as well as Tory backbenchers belonging to the European Research Group, such as Bernard Jenkin. Cummings certainly names them – and more.
Cummings’ hatreds are general as well as specific. He seldom criticises individual civil servants – in fact, he’ll occasionally praise them – but he frequently criticises the civil service as a whole. He basically wants to do away with the existing system, which is founded on permanence and continuity, and replace it with one in which ministers have greater powers to hire and fire officials and to seek outside help.
He doesn’t spare the media, either.
And if you’re wondering whether, amid all the invective, Cummings has said something nasty about his current boss, Boris Johnson… I’m afraid not.
It’s not all mortal combat, though. Cummings’ posts are often stuffed – overstuffed – with references to the writers, thinkers, scientists and hotshot-fighter-pilots-turned-military-strategists he admires. Here are some of the main ones.
If you’d like to delve into Cummings’ blog for yourself, these are the starting points we’d recommend – for what they reveal about him and his thinking.
On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’. Cummings has written 34 posts (and counting?) on the EU referendum campaign and its aftermath, some of which are in multiple parts. This is the big one, though, the one that feels closest to an all-in account of Vote Leave and his part in it. It spans from the deficiencies of the campaign to the deficiencies of the media, but remember it, really, as the post that gave Benedict Cumberbatch (as Cummings) one of his monologues in Brexit: An Uncivil War: “In a different branch of history, I was never here…”
On the referendum #34: BATSIGNAL!! DON’T LET CORBYN-STURGEON CHEAT A SECOND REFERENDUM WITH MILLIONS OF FOREIGN VOTES. This is technically the 34th entry in Cummings’ referendum series, but it’s really the one and only entry in his general election series. Published just a couple of weeks before the vote, and written in a more imperative style than usual, it’s another example (along with the job advert that came a few weeks later) of Cummings using his blog as a disruptive force.
The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC. He doesn’t do short headlines, does he? The post itself, however, is a relatively brief foray into one of Cummings’ techy preoccupations: the ARPA and PARC research projects. As elsewhere, he doesn’t really manage to move from the coolness of these things to the howness of them – how might they actually be translated to British politics? But he serves up some scientific links that are worth clicking on, if you want to go down that rabbit hole.
Illustrations and graphics by Chris Newell
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