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The Cummings coup failed. But the next one might not

Monday 26 July 2021

The brazen way in which Boris Johnson’s former adviser described his team’s plan to depose the PM – only days after his 2019 election triumph – is a warning of how much is at stake in the new age of populist, digitised politics


The best conspiracy theories never die. To this day, in books, documentaries and scholarly arguments, controversy continues to rage over a series of alleged plots to oust Harold Wilson from Number 10, and the question of MI5’s involvement in these supposed machinations against the Labour prime minister.

The first such proposed coup, in May 1968, amounted to a request by the press tycoon Cecil King that Lord Mountbatten of Burma replace Wilson, as head of a national emergency government – a notion that Mountbatten dismissed for the treasonous absurdity that it was.

The second, which Wilson himself described to the BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, was, he believed, a sustained campaign in the mid-1970s by senior military figures and a group of MI5 officers to drive him out.

His suspicions, it seemed, were dramatically confirmed by Peter Wright’s notorious memoir Spycatcher (1987), in which Wright disclosed that “up to thirty” of his fellow security service officers had plotted against Wilson during that period. No less dramatic, however, was the speed with which Wright rowed back from this claim in a Panorama interview in 1988, admitting that only one of his colleagues was serious about joining the conspiracy he proposed.

Pressed on the accuracy of this section of Spycatcher, Wright finally conceded: “I would say it was unreliable.” Yet the allegations persist in national folklore. Half a century on, MI5 has a page on its official website rebutting the charges.

Compare and contrast, then, these murky claims and counter-claims with the straightforward disclosure last week by Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, that, “within days” of the December 2019 general election, he and his team were discussing whether or not “to get rid of him”.

In one of the most extraordinary exchanges in recent political journalism, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuennssberg, challenged Cummings to explain how he justified such conversations, especially in light of the thumping 80-seat majority that Johnson had secured. “What kind of con had you just pulled off on the British public then, if that’s really what you think?” she asked.

“Well, it’s not,” replied Cummings. “I don’t think it’s a con, it’s… we tried to solve very hard problems in the order that we can solve them in.” By this he seemed to mean: use Johnson’s parliamentary muscle to force Brexit through, but, if necessary, dispense with the prime minister himself as soon as possible.

Kuennsberg rephrased the question: “There’s nothing wrong with running an election campaign, presenting one thing to the public, saying ‘he’s the guy for the job,’ and then days after the result comes through, you then [sic] unelected officials inside government, discussing getting rid of him? That’s okay?”

In answer to which, Cummings offered only a shrug: “Well that’s… I’d say that’s politics.”

The problem is that, by the standards of contemporary political culture, he is absolutely right. He and his cronies from the successful 2016 Vote Leave referendum team – transplanted as a group to Downing Street and other key positions in Whitehall when Johnson became PM in 2019 – did nothing to conceal their function as an entryist faction, operating as a government within a government.

And, whereas the full details of the alleged conspiracies against Wilson took many years to emerge and still remain unclear, Cummings was quite happy to reveal to the BBC’s political editor his team’s plot against Johnson a mere 17 months after the general election whose result they sought to subvert.

“Breathtaking” is a word that has been debased by overuse. But no other word will do to describe his brazen disregard for the democratic process and his contempt for the sovereignty of the Queen-in-Parliament – the constitutional concept that was meant to be so dear to the Brexiteers.

All that mattered to Cummings was what he and his team decided was right. Were they planning a coup? Not in the old analogue sense that would require military or paramilitary muscle, the collusion of sympathetic elements in the intelligence agencies, and the installation of a figurehead such as Mountbatten.

Why, after all, would they even contemplate recourse to such crude weapons when they wielded such power already? They had, never forget, been positively wooed and welcomed into Number 10 by a prime minister who did not grasp quite how provisional and conditional the support of Dom and his gang would be.

The core question, of course, is the one that Kuenssberg finally put to Cummings: “Who’s ‘us’, who’s ‘we’?” Throughout the interview, he referred to his “team”, his “network” of “a few dozen, maybe,” a group that, he claims, took, or aspired to take, all the key decisions.

Though he does not name names, we can make an informed guess that the principal members would include some or all of Lee Cain, who left his post as Number 10 director of communications on 13 November (the same day as Cummings); Ben Gascoigne, Johnson’s former political secretary; Rob Oxley, who remains a special adviser at the Foreign Office; (Lord) David Frost, still embedded as Johnson’s Brexit negotiator; and Oliver Lewis, who quit in February 2021 as head of Number 10’s Union unit.

Did Cummings explicitly discuss the removal of Johnson with these particular individuals, or with some of them, or with another entirely separate elite unit awaiting orders in a cupboard in the Cabinet Office? This, he has yet to reveal.

The point, however, is that this was how he operated, apparently with no sense of impropriety or guilt. The “we” referred to by Kuennsberg was not the British government, still less the British electorate. It was Cummings and his mates, who considered themselves, like all the most deluded populists, to be, in word and deed, the true representatives of the People.

Why worry about such trivia as the result of a general election – self-evidently a massive personal endorsement of Johnson himself – when you regard yourselves as the true Vox Populi? Where did Cummings & Co. get their mandate? From being right about everything, of course. No less than the Trotskyites of the 20th Century, they drew their certainty from an interpretation of history, and dismissed all other views as “false consciousness”.

To be clear: there is absolutely nothing new about entryism, or cliques, or factional dominance in the upper reaches of power. Nor is such dominance intrinsically and always a bad thing. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In essence, New Labour was a gang that, having seized control of a floundering political movement, steered it ruthlessly to 13 years in office. David Cameron’s Conservative Party was led by a tightly knit social group – remember the “Notting Hill Tories”? – who lit upon “modernisation” as a way of getting themselves into power.

Indeed, a whole school of historical study, founded by Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960), has devoted itself to the complex interaction in politics of faction, connection, and patronage; the interest groups within the royal court, government and Parliament, over which idealism was draped as a matter of convenience.

In his masterpiece, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929), Namier wrote: “Men… no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.” What a field day the historian and his disciples would have had analysing the Brexit era and, in particular, the factional supremacy of a group of special advisors and assorted allies led by Cummings and his comrades.

All of which poses the obvious question: if it has always been thus, why worry? Every age has its kingmakers, court favourites and political puppeteers great and small, vying for the ear of the mighty. Why fret about Cummings – a master manipulator who overreached and was, in the end, given his marching orders by the very prime minister he conspired to bring down?

For two reasons. First, the dominance of Dom, while it lasted, showed how alarmingly immunocompromised our institutional system has become. Exploiting every loophole in the rules governing referendums, he ran rings around the Electoral Commission, and, in flagrant contempt of parliament, refused repeatedly to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee when, under the chairmanship of Damian Collins, it was investigating fake news and disinformation. For this, he received the mildest of parliamentary slaps on the wrist

Recruited by Johnson in July 2019 to “get Brexit done” by all and any means necessary, he did just that – powering his way through a body politic that simply lacked the antibodies of collective confidence and public trust to put up much by way of resistance. He ensured that 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn for defying Number 10’s Brexit strategy.

He was content for Cabinet ministers to lie to the Queen about the prorogation of Parliament – a prorogation that was later declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. His revenge was a commitment in the Conservative manifesto to limit judicial review so that it was not used “to conduct politics by another means”. He was (and remains) dementedly convinced that Whitehall is uniformly second-rate and sought to tear it down – an irony, given that, without the excellence and stamina of UK civil servants, the administration of the country would have collapsed while the political class was off having its Brexit nervous breakdown.

Cummings may be gone, but his curtailed march through the nation’s core institutions was a warning of their profound fragility. In less than five years, he showed how vulnerable they were to one clever man in a hoodie. Imagine if he had got his way and stuffed the government with “weirdos and misfits” – which is to say, people whom he likes and who think like him. How sanguine would you be feeling now?

Second, and related to this, Cummings understood quickly and instinctively that we are living in a world in which institutions are being supplanted by networks; in which politics has moved house and, in the words of the Oxford academic Philip N. Howard, is no longer primarily defined by interactions between formal public bodies, but is fast becoming “a system of relationships between and among people and devices”.

The most obvious example of this was Vote Leave’s astonishingly nimble use of data in the 2016 referendum to fire bespoke ads into the newsfeeds of voters. To this day, the legality of these methods remains a bone of contention – partly because law and regulation lag so far behind technological advance. Cummings, his counterparts and would-be successors are driving Ferraris at 180mph down roads for which the rules were written to control penny-farthings.

What distinguishes his gang from its predecessors is not only its sheer shamelessness. The Vote Leave caucus – or whatever it now calls itself – has in its kitbag an arsenal of digital weapons that can rock nations and change regimes. It is all the more alarming, then, that most members of the political class still remain so digitally illiterate and regard the “online world” as an annex to their own, rather than the world where most of what matters now takes place.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, refers to his ex-boss as the “very imperfect instrument” for the execution of his nationalist, populist agenda, just as Cummings declared to Kuenssberg that Johnson “didn’t know what he was doing,” whereas “I had a plan”. This is not a reassuring symmetry.

At the end of his BBC interview – classic Dom – he tantalised viewers with what amounted to a series of teaser trailers. He might, he said, “set up some kind of new party, a party to end the existing parties – to kill them off and create something different”. Alternatively, he could try and pull off the same trick again: “Take over an existing party and try and bend it to something that’s different.”

Right now, he said, this was all on the drawing board: “As I say, at the moment I’m just talking to people and thinking about things… So I think, clearly, there are opportunities to build something which can actually solve problems for people outside of the existing current power structures.”

I don’t think this means anything beyond: stay tuned, folks. And we will, sometimes against our better judgment, because Cummings is undoubtedly a star.

But that, for him, is precisely the problem. He has now completed the transition into show business, and cannot ever again pretend to be a reclusive figure in the backroom. I imagine he will make a fortune charging credulous corporate leaders and bankers exorbitant fees to call them idiots, and tell them that they need to overhaul their businesses on the model of Nasa or the Manhattan Project and replace all their senior staff with socially dysfunctional astrophysicists. But if he wants to remain a force in politics he will have to learn to function at the front of house, a space onto which he still only sparingly ventures.

The important question is not “what will Cummings do next?” but “what will the next Cummings do?” Who will be the next implacable figure to find a way of gaming the system to make a mockery of democracy – and what agenda will he or she be pursuing? After five years, we have built up something approaching herd immunity to Dom himself. What should be worrying us now is the variants to come.