Monster or guru? What Dominic Cummings’ blog tells us about him

The architect of Vote Leave shares his thoughts in his sprawling blog full of italics and capitals– but what are his political values?

‘Demented focus’ … Dominic Cummings.
‘Demented focus’ … Dominic Cummings. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock

Poor Dominic Cummings. Throughout his career, he has been surrounded by idiots. The “grotesque incompetents” who blocked his agenda at the Department for Education. The “dysfunctional egomaniacs” who undermined his work for Vote Leave. The “conspiracy network” that has been out to get him since he won the EU referendum. The “narcissist-delusional” members of the European Research Group who messed up his beautiful vision of Brexit. And now he is working with Boris Johnson at No 10.

New Labour was heralded by intellectuals such as Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens. In their place, Johnson has Cummings. And, as a guide to his thinking, we have Cummings’s blog.

He started it five years ago and has used it as a dumping ground for his thoughts. All of his thoughts. Some entries are only a few lines long while others stretch to 10,000 words. The whole thing, including attachments, has a higher word count than Ulysses. Like Ulysses, it is both focused and digressive, obsessive and uncontainable; all emphatic italics and BLOCK CAPS and (1) numbered points leading to (2) apocalyptic conclusions.

Cummings studied history at Oxford but writes knowingly about subjects from bio-engineering to space exploration. His style oscillates between the academic and the hard-boiled. He suggests “bunging a few million quid” to someone to liven up the civil service; claims that “great unconventional hookers and a bit of imagination … get you into pretty much anywhere”; and wonders “what is to stop someone sending a drone swarm across the river and bombing parliament during PMQs”.

He boasts (rightly) that Vote Leave changed the course of European history, but says his contribution to the referendum result has been overestimated. “I am not clever, I have a hopeless memory, and have almost no proper ‘circle of competence’.” His only strength, he says, comes from his “demented focus”.

He thinks the political establishment is full of people who want to be something rather than do something. “The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’.”

Unlike these professional politicians, Cummings had what he calls “proper jobs” between leaving Oxford and joining the anti-euro campaign in 1998. “I’m not claiming I was good at anything,” he says, “but working in nightclubs and starting businesses in Russia counts as ‘the real world’.” According to reports, the nightclub belonged to his uncle Phil; and the Russian business was an airline that folded after its first flight left without a single passenger.

It is not just his CV that distinguishes him from most politicians. He is not afraid to speak his mind. In fact, he cannot pass a sacred cow without shooting it. He talks of banning political parties. He wants to revolutionise the education system, so that the most gifted students are prepared from the age of 15 for the challenges of leadership. He would then replace our current crop of policymakers with these prodigies, selected on the basis of their IQ rather than their ability to work the party system or the civil service fast track.

He is inspired by the teams behind the Apollo space programme and the creation of the internet, who were encouraged to challenge each other, helping to fight groupthink and ensure a diversity of opinions. Cummings does not welcome all forms of challenge, however. When the culture select committee asked him to give evidence about Vote Leave’s use of personal data, he refused to attend unless the MPs swore an oath to tell the truth. He has a point here, of sorts. Unlike a court of law, a select committee is a political arena; and, under parliamentary privilege, politicians are legally free to lie. All the same, it isn’t clear why he couldn’t just answer the MPs’ questions and have done with it. They are, for better or worse, elected by the public.

More broadly, it is hard to reconcile the two versions of Cummings that emerge from the blog. On the one hand, there is the technocrat who thinks the country should be run by an intellectual elite. On the other, there is the populist who says a second referendum would be “a rematch against the public”. So, what are Cummings’s real political values?

“I’ve never been a party person,” he claims. “I’m not Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else. I follow projects I think are worthwhile.” But how does he choose which projects are worthwhile? Is he motivated by a belief in order, freedom or equality? He spurns these ideologies. In his view, conservatism, liberalism and socialism are inadequate guides to policy-making, and should be replaced with a more “scientific” approach. This raises big questions. How would his government of non-political geniuses decide between competing priorities? Or reconcile the trade-offs between different interest groups? Or resolve ethical dilemmas about, for example, gene editing or humanity’s use of finite environmental resources? And aren’t his own views – on the EU, human rights and free markets, say – just the tiniest bit political?

To his detractors, Cummings is a monster. To his fans, he is a guru. On the evidence of the blog, he is neither. He is an extreme rationalist, who is prepared to share his ideas in the form of this sprawling work-in-progress. He yearns for a world beyond politics – but does not explain how to square this with the fact that people disagree about things, and that these disagreements are based on different worldviews, of which his is only one.

Nonetheless, his boldness is invigorating. Political thinkers on both sides may reject his conclusions, but they should engage with his thinking. I hope that he will turn the blog into a book. However, it will be a brave editor who dares to ask him for rewrites.

Jonathan Heawood’s The Press Freedom Myth will be published in November.