The announcement that Boris Johnson was appointing Dominic Cummings as his senior adviser was met with a mix of incredulity and horror, at Westminster and beyond.
Described by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’, Cummings is seen as a toxic figure by many that he has worked with. As the Campaign Director for Vote Leave, he is also the subject of an ongoing police investigation and has been held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and other abuses of the electoral process. Some MPs were so disgusted by his elevation to a key role in government that they demanded his parliamentary pass and security clearance be rescinded.
To many, this appointment signalled Johnson’s intention to use any methods, no matter how dubious, to win an upcoming election. And if it’s dubious electoral methods you’re after, Cummings is your go-to guy.
It was Cummings who worked hand in glove with Cambridge Analytica’s sister company AIQ to flood voters’ Facebook timelines and inboxes with 1.5 billion ads in the final days before the 2016 referendum. Each of these was carefully calibrated to push particular buttons with individual voters, using psychological profiling and targeting techniques developed by Cambridge Analytica. Cummings was so proud of this achievement that he boasted about it at length at an advertising industry convention (omitting to mention that Vote Leave had illegally breached its spending limit in order to do this, for which it was later fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission).
This was not the only way in which Cummings had been central to this fraudulent campaign. It was he who came up with the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan for Vote Leave – brilliantly crafted to appeal to voters who felt they had lost control of their lives after a decade of devastating austerity cuts. And it was Cummings who devised the infamous lie on the Brexit battle bus: ‘We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.’ He later admitted that the campaign could not have won without it.
Cummings is well aware that most people who voted for Brexit did so for reasons that had little to do with the European Union: “I think we voted to leave because so many British people had been left behind economically and culturally for so long, and were furious about it; and because, from the 2008 financial crisis onwards, they had accumulated so much contempt for the political elites.”
For Cummings, it appears that any lie is acceptable if it succeeds in manipulating voters – many of whom he regards as ‘genetically inferior’ (Cummings is nothing if not an elitist, with undisguised contempt for those that he considers less intelligent than himself). Amongst the falsehoods that appeared on individual users’ Facebook feeds were claims such as ‘The EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears’, ‘The EU wants to kill our cuppa’ and ‘The UK’s new borders are with Syria and Iraq’. All completely untrue, but the advantage of ‘dark ads’ such as these is that they do not have to be held up to wider scrutiny of the sort that might expose their falsity.
Cummings has been keen to dissociate Vote Leave from the obvious racism and xenophobia of Nigel Farage and Leave.EU. But this is more about public perception than principle: Many of Vote Leave’s targeted ads pushed just the same racist buttons as Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.
As Johnson’s most senior adviser, Cummings has been given extraordinary power over the processes of government. One of his first steps was to address a meeting of other ‘spads’ (special advisers) to impress on them that their primary duty was to deliver Brexit ‘by any means necessary’ and that they, rather than ministers, ‘should be the real driving force behind everything the government does’, owing their loyalty directly to Johnson and his team (led by Cummings). He has also ‘joked’ that civil servants who are insufficiently enthusiastic about Brexit should be ‘purged’. Ideological purges of the civil service have typically been among the first moves of incoming autocrats, from Hitler to Erdogan, and Cummings’ record suggests that we would be unwise to dismiss these remarks as a joke.
A power structure in which unelected advisers are calling the shots also smacks of the methods of an authoritarian state rather than those of an accountable parliamentary democracy. But then Cummings is on record expressing his contempt for parliament and the civil service, as for so much else: ‘MPs have proved they can’t be trusted… The rotten civil service will be destroyed.’
No Cabinet of Horrors would be complete without its Dr Frankenstein, and Dominic Cummings fits that role to a tee.