Before taking on the role of ‘Brexit mastermind’ Dominic Cummings in a television drama, actor Benedict Cumberbatch decided to get to know his subject.
The Hollywood star duly spent an evening last summer at the North London home of the political strategist and Vote Leave guru. After dining on a vegan pie, the pair sat up into the wee hours, chatting and drinking wine.
A few months later, while publicising Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch was asked by an interviewer if anything about his encounter with the famously prickly 47-year-old Cummings had surprised him.
Dominic Cummings, pictured far right, was in Downing Street as Boris Johnson was greeted at Number 10 by his Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill
He thought for a moment before answering: ‘He’s not a sociopath.’
To some, that may sound like faint praise. Yet such is the hostility that Dominic Cummings generates, that friends took the remark as a compliment.
Yesterday, following the announcement of Cummings’s appointment as one of Boris Johnson’s most senior advisers, hostility was one of several emotions in evidence.
Remain-supporting MPs were outraged to learn that he is joining No. 10 in a ‘chief executive’ role, charged with getting Brexit over the line and running Mr Johnson’s domestic policy.
Former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston called it an ‘appalling error of judgment’.
Cummings, who was architect of the Vote Leave campaign has been appointed as Mr Johnson’s ‘chief executive’ role – tasked with getting Brexit over the line
But it also led to rumblings of discontent from hardline Tory Brexiteers who fell out with Mr Cummings during the Brexit referendum — and whom he has since described as a ‘cancer’ on British politics.
Friends defended the appointment, saying Mr Cummings was ‘amazingly talented’ and would ‘drive’ Mr Johnson’s agenda.
‘The chances of Brexit happening just went up, sharply,’ one added. Whatever the truth, Cummings is one of Westminster’s great eccentrics.
Balding and scruffy, with a personality that has been variously described as ‘mad professor’ and ‘evil genius’, he’s feared across Whitehall for his combustible nature, abrasive manner — and contempt for officialdom.
Appointed to run the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, he earned wider notoriety as the data-mining arch-Brexiteer played by Cumberbatch, whose controversial — and, many opponents insist, legally wonky — dark arts delivered a narrow victory for Brexit.
Cummings was played in a Channel 4 drama about the Brexit campaign by Benedict Cumberbatch, pictured centre, along with Richard Goulding as Boris Johnson and Oliver Maltman as Michael Gove
It was Cummings who coined the ingenious winning slogan ‘Take Back Control’, inspired by polling which suggested that a silent majority of Britons felt left behind by political elites. It was also Cummings who presided over the highly contentious decision to stick disputed figures about EU funding and the NHS (Brexit would mean ‘£350m more a week’) on the side of a bus.
Cummings has been upsetting the Westminster establishment for years. In 2014, the usually mild-mannered David Cameron branded him a ‘career psychopath’.
That particular remark, in a speech, came after Cummings had given an outrageously frank newspaper interview about a three-year stint he’d just spent as an adviser at the Department for Education.
With a candour some regarded as refreshing — and others thought foolhardy — he dubbed the ministry a ‘madhouse’ and a ‘basket case’, and blamed much of its ills on an incompetent Conservative Prime Minister who ‘bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose’.
Cummings was even ruder about Cameron’s top aides, calling chief spin doctor Craig Oliver ‘just clueless’ and saying that Old Etonian chief-of-staff Ed Llewellyn was ‘a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court’. In blog posts, he then described Nick Clegg, then Deputy Prime Minister in Cameron’s coalition, as ‘a revolting character’. (Clegg responded that Cummings was ‘some loopy individual’.)
Cummings certainly isn’t a man who suffers fools gladly and his elevation will terrify the Whitehall machine.
‘Dominic basically thinks SW1 is full of ****holes,’ is how one insider puts it. ‘He’s done a lot of work in polling, and takes an evidence-based approach to politics and electioneering, and that gives him very strong ideas about what needs to be done, which often is the opposite of what the Establishment thinks needs doing.
‘He can also be very rude, so his relationship with Mark Sedwill [head of the Civil Service] could get very difficult very quickly.’
When Cummings gets his feet under his new desk, even leading Tory Brexiteers, who are, in theory, firm supporters of the new Prime Minister, may feel the heat.
David Cameron, pictured with his wife Samantha outside Downing Street in 2010 described Cummings as a ‘career psychopath’
Take David Davis, former Brexit Secretary and a supposed party grandee. Cummings once called him ‘thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus’.
Take also the ERG faction of hardline anti-EU Tories, whose members include the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sir Bill Cash. In a blog, Cummings recently dubbed them as ‘narcissist delusionals’ and ‘useful idiots’ whose ongoing intransigence ‘has helped only Remain’.
‘During the referendum, so many of you guys were too busy shooting or skiing or chasing girls to do any actual work,’ he added. ‘You should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic.’
Cummings forged this personality in Durham. The son of an oil rig project manager and a special-needs teacher, he was educated at Durham School, where fees rise to £35,000 a year.
He spent a portion of his teenage years helping an uncle run the city’s notorious Klute nightclub, a venue once described as ‘Europe’s worst’, where his duties purportedly involved working as a doorman. At Oxford, where he read Ancient and Modern History, he was tutored by the late Professor Norman Stone, a conservative academic.
After graduating, Cummings spent three years in Russia, where he attempted to set up an airline, before being appointed director of Business for Sterling, a group which campaigned successfully to keep Britain out of the Euro.
After three years there, he moved to become Director of Strategy for the (then) Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, but that lasted just eight months before he quit in frustration over his boss’s ‘incompetent’ leadership.
Cummings then led the successful 2004 campaign against the establishment of a North-East regional assembly, a pet project of John Prescott (his side won, with 78 per cent of the vote).
He followed that by taking two years off, spending much of his time reading philosophy books in a ‘bunker’ on his father’s farm.
In 2007, he came back to work for Michael Gove, an old ally who gave the speech at his wedding to Mary Wakefield, a journalist recruited by Boris to join The Spectator when he was editor (she’s now the magazine’s commissioning editor), and mother of their young son, Alexander.
Balding and scruffy, with a personality that has been variously described as ‘mad professor’ and ‘evil genius’, he’s feared across Whitehall for his combustible nature, abrasive manner — and contempt for officialdom
Gove and Cummings’s stint at the Department for Education brought a host of innovations, including academy chains, free schools, performance-related pay and endless changes to the curriculums.
Largely popular with voters and parents, they nonetheless outraged teaching unions, part of an establishment Cummings branded ‘the blob’, thanks to their resistance to change.
‘Dom got stuff done, which is no mean feat, and for all the controversy, there were plenty of people, including some civil servants, who really enjoyed working with him,’ one former colleague recalls.
‘He can be a very funny guy, and there were people at [the Department of] Education, and again at Vote Leave, who would walk through walls for him.
‘He’s also a brilliant strategic thinker who can see several moves ahead, and unlike most of the political class he has a track record of actually delivering things.’
Whether that track record continues in Downing Street remains to be seen. But succeed or fail, Cummings’s past form suggests he’s guaranteed to make waves.