SARAH VINE: Dominic Cummings is rude, irritating and looks like he got dressed in a skip – but Number 10 will be diminished by his loss
Friday evening, and I’m sitting in the kitchen with my son when the news that Dominic Cummings has left No 10 pings on to my phone. ‘Dom’s gone,’ I say, watching him unload half a bottle of tomato ketchup on to his sausages.
‘Dom?’ he says. ‘As in… dad’s friend Dom?’ ‘Yup,’ I reply. ‘Oh wow,’ he says. ‘That’s a shame. I like Dom. He once picked me up from football. It was the most intense car journey of my life.’
That made me smile. That’s Dom in a nutshell: no small talk, no unnecessary chit-chat, none of your patronising nonsense. Not even if you’re a child. Actually, probably especially not if you’re a child.
That’s Dom in a nutshell: no small talk, no unnecessary chit-chat, none of your patronising nonsense. Not even if you’re a child. Actually, probably especially not if you’re a child. Pictured: Boris Johnson’s former political advisor Dominic Cummings arriving at No 10 in December
I first met Dom around 2005. I think it was in a rather seedy restaurant in Chinatown, during an evening out with friends.
I remember him being quite taciturn, softly spoken yet confident. His distinctive Durham accent stood out from everyone else’s clipped, southern tones. He didn’t say much, but when he did it counted.
Some time later, when my husband was appointed Shadow Education Secretary by David Cameron, I met him again, this time in Michael’s office in Westminster.
Dom was working there, in a cramped and occasionally malodorous space, helping pull together the Conservatives’ education strategy.
Even then, he looked like he’d got dressed in a skip. You’d always know he was in by the sight of his shabby green anorak draped over the back of his chair.
Despite the many hints from the fragrant cabal of ladies who ran Michael’s office, he stubbornly refused to upgrade it to something more suited to his surroundings.
Friday evening, and I’m sitting in the kitchen with my son when the news that Dominic Cummings has left No 10 pings on to my phone. ‘Dom’s gone,’ I say, watching him unload half a bottle of tomato ketchup on to his sausages. Pictured: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings during the Vote Leave campaign
In fact, if I know Dom, he’s probably still got that wretched jacket, along with its matching nylon holdall, somewhere.
Nevertheless, they all adored him. He was polite, quiet, undemanding. He was their slightly geeky office son. They fussed over him, made sure he was properly fed (Dom is the sort of person who gets so carried away with his work he forgets to eat), tolerated with grace the mountains of mess he seemed to generate.
Wherever Dom sat, the piles of paper would multiply, slowly consuming all around like an especially vicious strain of knotweed.
The man was a genius, they all agreed; but in most other respects completely hopeless. Fast forward 15 years, and I’d say that still pretty much sums him up.
When it comes to strategy, to the really big stuff, there are few people in politics with Dom’s brilliance. Few with his knowledge and vision, who can see far enough outside the Westminster bubble to truly understand what ordinary voters think and want.
Let’s not forget that as campaign director at Business For Sterling, this is the man who helped keep us out of the Euro. He was of course instrumental in delivering Brexit, and an 80-seat majority for Boris. Whether you agree with those outcomes or not, you can’t deny they are huge achievements.
I remember him being quite taciturn, softly spoken yet confident. His distinctive Durham accent stood out from everyone else’s clipped, southern tones. He didn’t say much, but when he did it counted. Pictured: Cummings outside his north London home after resigning as the PM’s top aide
But politics, sadly, isn’t just about getting things done. It ought to be, but the reality is far more complex than that.
It’s also about how things look, about tone, about so-called optics. And Dom was hopeless at that, as the whole Barnard Castle incident illustrates.
Quite simply, he had zero capacity to mince his words. In the days when he was a frequent guest at my dinner table, almost every post-prandial discussion about politics would at some point involve Dom starting a sentence with ‘I don’t give a fig what so-and-so thinks…’ or, more often, ‘That’s bulls**t.’
He used to delight in knocking fence-sitters off their perch. And if they didn’t like it, they could lump it.
Personally, I always looked forward to these exchanges. You knew that if Dom was coming to supper, whatever else it would be, it would not be a dull evening.
You would also want to get in a couple of extra bottles of red wine. And I welcomed his directness. It meant that when he did agree with you, you knew it was genuine, and not just empty flattery.
It’s also about how things look, about tone, about so-called optics. And Dom was hopeless at that, as the whole Barnard Castle incident illustrates. Pictured: Cummings making a public statement in May after it was revealed he had breached lockdown restrictions
Unlike most men in politics, who when a woman expresses an opinion have a marked tendency to patronise, Dom didn’t.
If he thought you were wrong, he would say so – and then explain in painful and forensic detail why. It wasn’t necessarily a criticism – more of an analysis, a simple observation. Provided you understood that, he was a great person to be with.
But inevitably, some people interpreted his honesty as rudeness and arrogance. ‘Not fit for public consumption’ was, as I recall, how David Cameron put it, that same night back in 2016 when he and I argued over my husband’s decision to support the Leave campaign and he told me that Michael had backed the ‘wrong DC’.
Talking of Cameron, there are some parallels here. His scruffy guru Steve Hilton, although ideologically very different to Dom, was surprisingly similar in temperament.
Again, an outsider in a world essentially dominated by toffs (Hilton’s parents were Hungarian immigrants), Steve was the maverick thinker and intellectual powerhouse behind Dave’s bid to detoxify the Conservative brand.
When Cameron entered No 10 in 2010, he took Steve with him. Like Dom, Steve almost immediately got people’s backs up. He didn’t look the part (his dress sense was possibly even more eccentric than Dom’s), and he certainly didn’t play the game.
He used to delight in knocking fence-sitters off their perch. And if they didn’t like it, they could lump it. Pictured: Cummings arriving at Downing Street in February
And, like Dom, who famously said that ‘a hard rain’ was coming for the Civil Service, Steve always felt Sir Humphrey wielded far too much power.
Steve’s uncompromising attitude and irritating habit of disagreeing with people, especially civil servants, awoke the Kraken at the heart of Whitehall, and it set about slowly but surely strangling the political life out of him, aided and abetted by certain other elements in Cameron’s inner circle who did not like his influence.
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Before long, Steve, in many ways Cameron’s one true connection to authenticity, had gone, and the waters quietly closed over what had once been his ‘modernising’ agenda. That is now, I suspect, what will happen with this administration.
I don’t think it will have much effect on Brexit – that die is more-or-less cast. But with Dom out of the way, politics will go back to following the path of least resistance.
The heat will drain out of No 10, and things will begin to feel much less feverish. The status quo will be restored, and the wheels of soft power will go back to turning, without Dom to poke a spoke in them.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s a shame. Yes, he was rude, yes he was stubborn, yes he got on everyone’s nerves, yes he dressed like a demented scarecrow. But don’t we need people like that in public life?
It can’t all be slick snake-oil salesmen in suits. Governments need disruptors like Dom, heavy thinkers who aren’t bothered by the practicalities or the ‘optics’, who don’t put platitudes and niceties ahead of action.
Men and women who don’t care whose nose is out of joint, so long as what needs to be done gets done.
Above all, people who remind those in power that they are there to DO the job, not just hang on to it for as long as possible. People who strive for the impossible, against all the odds.
But perhaps, when it comes down to it, that’s the real problem. After all, politics, as a wise man once said, is the art of the possible. And there are few men I know on this planet who are quite as wonderfully impossible as Dominic Cummings.