From the moment Boris Johnson arrived in Downing Street, one key figure was lurking in the background.
As the prime minister briefly posed for a photo with Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Dominic Cummings stood in the corner joining in the applause. As ever, his clothes – jeans and a t-shirt – jarred with the surroundings.
Since then, he has built a national profile: infamous as the aide who in a matter of days turned the North East town of Barnard Castle from beauty spot to memer’s dream.
“I think Dominic Cummings is undoubtedly a genius,” concedes Tim Montgomerie, who worked with the PM’s chief adviser in No 10 until December.
“Some of his campaign successes – whether the Brexit campaign or the general election are extraordinary, come-from-behind victories and I think that sort of genius inspires a lot of loyalty from the staffers that work for him. The danger though is that it also breeds a sort of arrogance that other views aren’t welcome.”
Indeed the views of more than 40 MPs – that Mr Cummings should resign – made little difference as the prime minister sacrificed his own poll ratings to save his top aide.
Who is Dominic Cummings?
Dominic Cummings was brought up in Durham and educated at Oxford. His first taste of political campaigning came at the turn of the millennium when he led a campaign to stop the UK adopting the Euro. He was briefly director of strategy for Iain Duncan Smith when the latter was Tory party leader.
And Mr Cummings later worked for Michael Gove when he was education secretary, clashing with teaching unions and leaving government under a cloud. David Cameron is said to have described him as ‘a career psychopath’.
His greatest victory – immortalised on TV by Benedict Cumberbatch – came when, alongside Boris Johnson, Mr Cummings convinced 17.4 million Britons to take back control and vote Leave.
Now as the PM’s chief adviser his profile has been raised yet further. Partly due to his abrasive run-ins with the media – “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich remainers” – and his idiosyncratic fashion choices.
Prominent prime ministerial advisers are nothing new.
“It was true of the nineteenth century with Disraeli and Gladstone, in the twentieth century Lloyd George, Churchill, Thatcher. They all need to have them,” says the political historian Sir Anthony Seldon.
“The difference with Dominic Cummings is never before in British history has one aide been so prominent and such a public figure in their own right.”
Tim Mongomerie argues: “It took Margaret Thatcher probably six, seven, eight years before she really stopped listening to the public. That came after she won lots of battles against her, and it took her that length of time for her to develop an arrogance complex.
“The problem for Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings is that they seemed to have developed that same arrogance complex within six months and, however good someone like Cummings is when it comes to politics and campaigning, no one knows everything.”
When Mr Cummings started working at Downing Street, there was speculation he wouldn’t hang around for long. But this saga has made it abundantly clear Boris Johnson believes Mr Cummings is just as critical to what he wants to achieve in power, as he was getting him into it.
Yet Sir Anthony Seldon warns the current situation may not be sustainable: “The evidence of history points very clearly and without any equivocation to the fact that when an aide to the PM becomes a big story themselves, almost as dominant as the PM, they cannot stay.
“Because it breaks apart everything in our democratic constitution. It is not the way the British play the political game.”
For now Boris Johnson’s chief adviser is protected. This Cummings Crisis is put to rest.
But with huge challenges ahead there may well be another on the horizon.
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