Just under six months ago, Dominic Cummings was a name on everybody’s lips as the Prime Minister’s senior special advisor was reported to have broken the UK national lockdown rules he had been instrumental in creating. On Friday evening, he symbolically left 10 Downing Street for good, holding a cardboard box, in the midst of widely publicised government infighting. So, who is Cummings and how did he become one of the most influential figures in British politics?
In July 2019, Cummings was promoted to the top level of British politics, seemingly out of nowhere, as PM Boris Johnson's Chief Special Advisor. The crucial fact about his position as a special advisor, nicknamed SPADs, is that they are generally apolitical and unelected, meaning they are not a member of the party, nor technically hold public office (this will become important later).
In reality, Cummings had been a rising political figure for some time. He began his career in politics working for the eurosceptic 'Business for Sterling' campaign, which opposed the UK joining the euro. The campaign also advocated the abolition of the BBC and the reformation of the UK civil service, the latter of which Cummings pushed for throughout his time in Downing Street. He later became the Director of Strategy for Iain Duncan Smith briefly in 2002, with the aim of modernising the Conservative Party, before he began working as a special adviser for Conservative politician Michael Gove in 2007. Here, he gained a reputation for his bluntness and eccentricity.
Cummings was then made the campaign director of 'Vote Leave' in 2015; the official campaign for the leave option on the ballot paper of the 2016 referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. He is widely credited with devising their notorious tagline: 'Take back control'. This is thought to have resonated powerfully with 'left-behind' voters through a nostalgic appeal and nationalist call for sovereignty.
Following the victory of the leave campaign, Cummings became a prominent name in eurosceptic politics and in July 2019 was appointed as senior adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the newest and most powerful positions in British politics. He entered Downing Street with a self-proclaimed mission of winning over working-class Brits who had voted Leave in the 2016 referendum; a mission that was accomplished when the Conservatives won their biggest majority since the early 1980s in the December 2019 General Election. Significantly, the Conservatives were successful in flipping numerous traditionally Labour voting constituencies, which have since become famously know as the 'red wall' in the North of England.
On 22nd May, the Daily Mirror and The Guardian revealed from a joint investigation that Cummings had been investigated by the police for breaking 'the Government's own lockdown rules' by driving from London to Durham five days after the Government announced that he was self-isolating. Cummings later justified this by claiming that travelling to Durham was essential to ensure he could find childcare in the event that he and his wife became too ill from coronavirus. The trip involved him driving his family to the small historic town, Barnard Castle, which he claimed was to test his eyesight and ability to drive before travelling back to London. This particularly attracted attention as it coincided with his wife's birthday.
The result of the investigation was national outrage and an unprecedented press conference held by Cummings in the garden of 10 Downing Street. Despite numerous calls from MPs and media outlets for resignation and condemnation, the government maintained their full support of Cummings, in a move which has been argued further undermined the UK's efforts against coronavirus.
After surviving one of the most high profile political scandals of 2020, Cummings' tenure in Downing Street came to an end as a result of highly publicised government infighting. These disputes came to a head as a result of the promotion of his close ally, Lee Cain, being promoted from director of communications to the PM's chief of staff. Details of this promotion were somehow leaked to the media, and chaos ensued.
This leak is the most recent of a stream of stories planted in the media by a source in the PM's inner circle: something that the former Chancellor Sajid Javid's team took the blame for back in February. In response, it was initially reported that Cummings would be stepping down at the end of the year. However, hours later, he was seen leaving Downing Street holding a cardboard box, inferring that he was gone for good.
Despite the overwhelming national outrage in response to Cummings' breach of lockdown rules, there were some who expressed support for his actions, claiming that it was what any responsible parent would do in his circumstances; this was a sentiment echoed by numerous senior government figures. Further to this, he has been praised by various Conservative figures, such as Steve Bannon, for his central strategic role in delivering the Conservative Party's landslide victory in the 2019 General Election, as well as the victory of the leave campaign in 2016 against all odds and expectations.
A dominant source of criticism of Cummings remains his trip to Durham during lockdown, however, he has provoked much wider controversy for his influential role in politics. Whilst in Downing Street, he gained a reputation for having a disregard for political conventions and holding huge amounts of power without a directly democratic mandate.
He was thought to be instrumental in the PM's 2019 attempted prorogation (a way of dismissing Parliament without completely dissolving it) of Parliament, which critics argued violated parliamentary convention and was an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the recently negotiated EU Withdrawal Agreement. The prorogation was later held to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. This event led to former PM John Major accusing Cummings of "poisoning politics". Critics have also focused on the significant influence Cummings possessed within the executive branch of government, despite the fact he is unelected and was officially a SPAD, which until Cummings were not commonly found at such high positions of government.
Questions have also arisen as to his activities prior to being hired by the PM. As a central figure of the Vote Leave campaign, his potential involvement in one of the most significant cases of electoral fraud in British political history has been widely speculated and was suggested in a report produced by the Electoral Commission.