Who is the most interesting writer about politics in Britain today? No question, it’s Dominic Cummings. The Substack blog he started in June last year is not cheap – £10 a month for an erratic and irregular output via email – but it’s worth it. Whenever and whatever he does post, you can be sure it will contain plenty of extraordinary ideas, unexpected insights and eye-popping indiscretions. Cummings appears to have little or no filter on his thoughts, with the result that his writing offers as clear a view into the dark heart of contemporary politics as is available anywhere. He has no time for any of the usual pieties. What you get is a voracious intellect – Cummings is interested in everything from 19th-century German history to quantum physics – coupled with a tireless curiosity about anything that lies outside the conventional wisdom. It’s a revelation.
As Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man – and the architect of Brexit and the Tories’ 2019 election landslide – Cummings is nothing if not divisive. Since Johnson fired him in late 2020, Cummings has turned on the prime minister and made it his mission to force him out of office. If your enemy’s enemy is your friend, this makes it hard for many of Cummings’ former critics to know what to think of him now.
And who is the most boring writer about politics in Britain today? That too is Dominic Cummings. His blog is exhausting to read – too long, too aggressive, too inward-looking. He rarely bothers to explain who’s who in his cast list of spads (government special advisers), physicists and tech gurus. Anyone in the know will already know, and everyone else should be grateful simply to be allowed inside the loop. His hobbyhorses are ridden to death. Nearly a quarter of all his posts have been fanboy notes on Lee Kuan Yew’s book about how he made modern Singapore: an interesting story, but by the time Cummings has finished you’ll never want to hear about it again.
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His score-settling is equally relentless. Even if you find it hard to feel sorry for Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie, you’ll wish Cummings would leave her alone, if only to vary the message a bit (she’s crackers, Johnson is frightened of her, it’ll all come crashing down in the end). He likes to recommend further reading on his favourite subjects, but too often that means links to things he has written himself, as though we needed more of his views on Brexit, or Whitehall dysfunction, or the merits of startup culture. He has a habit of wanting to remind us of what he got right, and what other people got wrong. Which turns out to be almost everything.
I study politics for a living, and as a professor at Cambridge I’m a member of the chattering classes Cummings despises – so I signed up for direct access to his thoughts with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was excited by what he had to say once freed from the shackles of government responsibility. On the other, I felt slightly queasy at the thought of all the bile heading my way. More than six months on, neither feeling has gone away. Cummings’ blog is intoxicating. And slightly puke-making.
When it began, most early subscribers – including me – probably expected that the cheap thrill of an insider spilling the beans would be its selling point. But the first post established that Cummings was after something else, too: a way of reimagining how the world of politics might work. As he describes it: “This is about the intersection of: selection, education & training for high performance; prediction; science & technology; communication; high-stakes decision-making in politics/government.” Cummings offered to help readers who were confused and in need of assistance. For instance: “You are a government minister/CEO-type figure in an organisation and want to shift from the old world of PowerPoint + Excel to: code + prediction/keeping score + dashboards (and dashboard of dashboards!)”. If so, Dom’s your man! Still, there’s keeping the score, then there’s settling scores – and Cummings does plenty of both.
The two Cummingses on display in his writing – fascinating Dom and infuriating Dom – are like a mirror image of the picture he paints of his former boss in No 10. Cummings says there are two Boris Johnsons: what he calls Boris-Normal (Boris-N) and Boris-Self-Aware (Boris-SA). Boris-N is a lazy, self-indulgent chancer. He has no interest in policy, doesn’t bother to read his papers, has no idea how to chair a meeting, and cannot enter a room without looking for the exit routes. This Boris only cares about his own prospects and will do whatever it takes to bolster them. But that means that occasionally, when things get really sticky, a different Boris emerges. Boris-SA knows he’s hopelessly out of his depth and will do whatever he is told to survive.
This happened at the end of the 2016 Brexit campaign, when the previously shambolic Johnson was willing to follow the Cummings playbook to the letter once he realised his career was on the line. It also happened in the summer of 2019, when Johnson, terrified he would be the shortest-lived PM in modern British history, asked Cummings to bail him out, regardless of the cost. Boris-N cares obsessively about what people think of him. Boris-SA couldn’t care less how much he is mocked, so long as he ends up on the winning side. Cummings believes Boris-SA disappeared, possibly for good, in December 2019, once he had a thumping majority in the Commons and Carrie whispering in his ear about what the press was saying about them (that he was Dom’s puppet, and she was his Lady Macbeth). Cummings thinks that once anyone starts caring about what the idiot newspapers are saying, the game is up.
Dom-Normal (Dom-N) is the opposite of Boris-N. He is intensely hard-working, obsessive about detail, always focused on the goal to be achieved. He has extraordinary gifts, not least his ability to think his way into the mindset of his opponents. Dom-N is self-aware about his limitations, including the gaps in his knowledge, and will do whatever it takes to compensate for them. He doesn’t care how he comes across so long as he gets results. But when he feels himself under attack or misunderstood, a different Cummings emerges. Dom-Can’t-Be-Wrong (Dom-CBW) is unable to resist overstating his case, rubbishing the alternatives and ranting about the stupidity of others. Most of the time Dom-N is in charge, which is what makes his blog so rewarding to read. But Dom-CBW is never far away and tends to emerge when the chips are down.
Whenever Johnson – or ‘the Trolley’ – veers catastrophically off track, Cummings can’t resist an analysis of what a cock-up it’s been
The whole world saw this after his bonkers and lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle in April 2020, when a man whose career is built on his ability to think outside the box was unable to think beyond his own foolish self-justifications. It happened again after his pompous post-resignation interview with the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, in July 2021, which led to criticism that he had ideas above his station, and was followed by his most whiny and least interesting blogpost. Having come across as both paranoid and absurdly self-important – apparently it was up to him and his little coterie to decide whether Johnson could be allowed to continue as prime minister after he had just won an election, when they twigged he was now going to listen to Carrie more than to them – Cummings needed to explain to his subscribers why giving the interview was still exactly the right thing to do. Apparently, he sees it as his job to “explain the craziness”, without being willing to explain his deep complicity in it. Johnson is lazy and self-serving except when he has no choice. Laziness is his default. Not Cummings. He only becomes lazy and self-serving when he can’t help himself.
The supreme importance of hard work is a recurring theme on his Substack. He believes that a willingness to put in insane hours, sacrifice a home life, and keep coming back for more is a hallmark of any successful campaign. It’s one of the reasons he is so contemptuous of the operation around Keir Starmer: they just don’t want it badly enough. When he was in Downing Street, Cummings made it clear to his staff that work/life balance was for people who were better off out of politics altogether. To win you must outlast your opponents. He thinks you can tell a winning campaign by whether the office is still humming at two in the morning and at the weekends. Clinton had it. Blair had it. Vote Leave had it. Successful startups have it. But it’s almost nowhere to be found in Whitehall or in the modern Labour party, where downtime is celebrated as a sign of a healthy approach to problem-solving. Cummings thinks downtime is for political losers. It’s what made the chillaxing David Cameron easy meat for him in the Brexit campaign.
That said, his blog does not feel like the work of a man who is fully committed to the enterprise, despite the large sums of money it must be bringing in (Substack doesn’t release the figures, only that there are “thousands” of subscribers, which means Cummings must be making hundreds of thousands a year). Posts are promised but never appear, deadlines are missed, and in his ask-me-anything sessions with subscribers he only bothers to answer the odd question that grabs his attention. (One way to get his attention is to tell him he was right about something, despite his claim in his launch post that he is “interested in the best arguments against what I say”.) What he really seems to like is suggestions for further reading. Meanwhile, great wafts of subscribers commenting on other subscribers’ comments pass him by. It is hard to know whether he’s reading these or just ignoring them. The result is that there is an odd, vicarious thrill when he does step in; even as a bystander you feel, ooh, Dom has noticed.
He often hints that the reason he can’t give the blog his full attention is that he is caught up in private meetings with unspecified people planning a new future for British politics. These are people, by implication, with serious money, serious influence and ready to make a serious time-commitment. Unlike his regular subscribers. We are just hangers-on, but that is also part of the thrill. I have to admit I get excited when a new post pings into my inbox, because you never know – is this the one where he finally explains what his plan is, how he is going to upend the establishment?
Cummings is not immune to the news cycle. Whenever Johnson – or “the Trolley” as Cummings has nicknamed him, often using the emoji for a supermarket trolley – “smashes from one side of the aisle to the other” and veers catastrophically off track, he can’t resist another analysis of what a cock-up it’s been. For the most part, though, he marches to the beat of his own drum. Cummings doesn’t follow the news. He doesn’t even want to make it now he no longer has an election campaign to run. He wants to undercut the news altogether by imagining an alternative political universe.
Trying to reshape how the British state works is at the heart of the Cummings project. It means putting the right people in charge: relentless, take-no-prisoners problem-solvers like himself. What makes Cummings’ view of politics so distinctive – and so powerful, or dangerous, depending on your point of view – is that he reverses the usual balance of personal and political prejudices. Most people, including most politicians, have contempt for the ideas of the other side, but quite a lot of time for many of the individuals who hold them. Remainers tend to think Brexit was a stupid, cynical, corrupt cause, but are willing to admit that not all Brexiters are monsters, including some family and friends. Cummings is the opposite. He goes out of his way to say he doesn’t think remain was a stupid idea – it may turn out in the long run that Brexit was a mistake, after all. The possibility that the future will surprise us all should be baked into everyone’s political calculations. But Cummings thinks remainers are invariably fools, above all the better-educated ones, because they are incapable of accepting that they might be wrong. His shorthand for these people is Jolyons (after the remainer lawyer Jolyon Maugham) or, as he says of Keir Starmer, the ones who can’t resist giving “the London idiot answer” to any difficult question because they daren’t think for themselves. When Starmer got himself tangled up over the question of whether “only women have a cervix”, it was, Cummings says, because “he’s a dead player working off a script” – and the voters can smell that a mile off.
Cummings cut his teeth campaigning against a new regional assembly for north-east England in the 2004 referendum. He was strategic adviser for the North East Says No (Nesno) campaign, now seen as a dry run for the leave campaign. He defeated the New Labour establishment – represented by then deputy prime minister John Prescott, a man never afraid of expressing a view on any subject – with a few simple slogans. “Politicians talk, we pay.” “More doctors, not politicians.” Cummings’ side won that vote by a margin of almost 80:20, despite polling indicating a victory for the government’s “yes” campaign. His opponents had no answer to his accusation that they wanted more of their kind of politics just for the sake of it.
This is his political superpower: he takes the other side’s ideas seriously, but not the people who hold those ideas. It means he can think dispassionately about what his opponents are doing – even get inside their heads and explore how they will react to what he is doing – while retaining his unshakeable contempt for them. He likes to conduct thought experiments in which he imagines how the idiots might do their version of politics better if they weren’t such idiots. It’s what won him Brexit. When remainers wailed about his tactics, traduced his character and told him he was playing with fire, he just shrugged. He ignored the commentariat and relished the howls of outrage from the chatterati. But he also thought hard about how his campaign messages would affect theirs. By wrapping the case for Brexit in the mantle of the NHS, he not only made Brexit more appealing to many voters, he infuriated remainers who knew it was nonsense. Which meant they ended up talking about his message, Brexit = NHS, and not theirs. In politics, victory doesn’t always go to the people who work hardest. It also goes to the ones for whom outrage is a weapon, not simply an indulgence.
The same applied in the tumultuous autumn of 2019, when parliament appeared paralysed by what to do about Brexit and the country was running out of patience. Cummings makes it clear that he had to persuade Johnson the only way through was to provoke an election, and that meant doing whatever it took to ensure his opponents ran out of patience first. It was a deliberate strategy. Prorogue parliament – not because you want to shut down democratic debate, but because you want to ensure the other side can’t talk about anything else. Send them mad and you will get what you want in the end, because they will be unable to think straight.
When it comes to people Cummings thinks we should read – mostly from the tech/science/futurism blogosphere – they are almost exclusively men
Still, it took Boris-SA to get it done, though he had to put up with torrents of outrage and criticism, including from his own family. Then, in the election campaign that followed, Johnson allowed Cummings to frogmarch him from one hospital ward photo-op to the next, despite the fact the nurses in the background looked as if they might be physically sick. This campaign is a joke, the remainers cried. Can’t they see how much people hate them? But what they meant was: can’t they see how much we hate them? Cummings could of course see that, and he was delighted with it.
In the end, Johnson won the biggest parliamentary majority for a generation. And as Dom-CBW repeatedly reminds us, all this was predicted with unerring accuracy by his state-of-the art polling algorithms. “We built a model that in December 2019 predicted we would win 364 seats – the result was 365 (we did better than the exit poll). We were lucky to be so close but … not very lucky.”
But Cummings’ superpower is also his great weakness. It means that personal animus is his stock in trade, and anger and frustration are never far from the surface. The Cummings roll call of modern-day morons, repeatedly called out on his Twitter feed and itemised in his blog, includes almost the entire parliamentary Conservative party, all journalists with a handful of exceptions (Guardian journalists are the worst), any social science academic (he only really has time for physicists and mathematicians), most of the senior British civil service, and anyone stupid enough to think Keir Starmer might be up to the job. At the same time, the few individuals who garner his respect get praised to the skies. When he comes across a rare talented civil servant, he’ll insist they would make a better prime minister than any of the current crop of politicians. He believes his small but brilliant team inside Downing Street – ferociously hard-working, fearlessly loyal to the Cummings way – could have saved the country from the current fiasco of Johnson’s premiership, along with many of the lives needlessly lost to Covid. So how to explain the fact that he and they are now outside Downing Street, and Johnson is still there? Morons will moron.
Cummings is not interested in half measures. He doesn’t want to reform the British state. He wants to blow it up and replace a bloated and inefficient machine with something brutally streamlined. Government departments that employ tens of thousands would do better if they were reduced to 50 people, so long as these were the right people. He thinks one of the biggest mistakes we make is to believe that intelligence and talent operate on a gradual gradient: that most very smart people are more or less as smart as each other. Wrong: the very smartest people can be tens or hundreds of times better at what they do than the next rung down.
This means that searching for outstanding talent and then doing whatever it takes to hold on to it is far more important than treating people fairly. Given the risks we face – from China, from the next pandemic, from AI – anything else would be grossly irresponsible. But that, for Cummings, is the problem: unlike in Silicon Valley, where stupidity gets ruthlessly weeded out, Whitehall and Westminster don’t take responsibility seriously. What matters is keeping up appearances. British politics is all about trying not to look stupid in the eyes of others. Which, Cummings insists, is the stupidest thing of all.
All this is oddly old-fashioned. At times, reading Cummings is like reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, published to wild acclaim in 1956, shortly after its author had discovered Nietzsche. Wilson was the original angry young man, an autodidact who believed that everything of lasting value was the work of the tiny minority with the courage to think for themselves. Cummings’ vision of small, secretive groups of brilliant people working to save the rest of us from disaster also recalls the world of John Buchan, though without the globe-trotting. Even within the British civil service, he believes there are tiny cabals of free-thinking renegades, determined to do the right thing, whatever it takes. These brave men and women don’t need to travel further than their computer screens. But they do need some protection from the higher-ups. And with Dom out of the picture, that’s what they are no longer getting.
I say men and women, but something else that is Buchan-like about Cummings’ worldview is its intense maleness. He is aware of this and, in Dom-N mode, he does what he can to correct for it. The handful of brilliant civil servants and special advisers he singles out are often women, if only to contrast with the general uselessness of the men. It was women who tended to do a better job during the darkest days of the Covid crisis in 2020. He thinks Labour’s fortunes could be transformed if Starmer were replaced by Lisa Nandy, but really any northern woman would do, given how hopeless the current leadership is. He says that his toughest opponent over Brexit was Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, who was “100 times” better at her job than the posturing Michel Barnier.
But when it comes to the people Cummings thinks we should read and follow – mostly culled from the tech/science/futurism blogosphere – they are almost exclusively men. This is men talking to men, about cryptocurrency, autonomous weapons, supply chains, space travel, nuclear fusion, existential risk. Cummings knows his way around these topics and his intolerance for blather makes him an excellent guide. A lot of it is fascinating and it’s easy to get drawn in. Still, spending an afternoon in the virtual company of these people can feel like being trapped in a world where the little people don’t count. No one has time for small talk or the usual niceties. Given what is at stake – systems collapse, tech breakthroughs, seriously big bucks – it’s all about being ahead of the curve. Sensitivity to anyone’s feelings is anathema.
In a blogpost from July, Cummings offered a guide to the most interesting nonfiction he could find (his taste in fiction is more conventional, though also very male: he likes quoting Tolstoy and classic sci-fi). The list includes Michael Nielsen on quantum computing, Steve Hsu on the future of war, Peter Scholze on mathematics, Scott Aaronson on quantum supremacy, Scott Alexander on polygenic scores, Balaji Srinivasan on cryptocurrency, Alvaro De Menard on pension systems, Tyler Cowen on university education, Andrew Sullivan on the “liberal left” (Sullivan is almost the only political commentator Cummings has any time for), Matt Yglesias on history curriculums, Alex Tabarrok on Covid, and Dominic Cummings on the birth of computing and mathematical paradoxes. The sole woman to make the list happens to be his wife, Mary Wakefield, writing in the Spectator about how women should toughen up.
If you click through, Wakefield’s article turns out to be pretty vapid. She is discussing a recent book that caused an attack of the vapours in Silicon Valley by describing most women in the Bay Area as “soft and weak … and full of shit”. Its author was cancelled, and Wakefield wants to know why, given the offending sentence was taken out of context and meant good-humouredly. Fair enough, I suppose. But then she says women should respond to insults like this more like men, giving the example of an article published nearly 20 years ago in the Spectator that characterised west London men on the dating scene as emotionally stunted, misogynistic, borderline alcoholic, coke-addled man-children. Since this described many of those who worked at the Spectator, you might expect the journalists to mind. Not a bit of it – they loved the article and put it on the cover. The then editor of the magazine, Boris Johnson, even invited its author, a young Canadian woman, to lunch. Of course he did.
Cummings has little sympathy for people – from women to minorities to workers – who can’t control the oppressive systems they are stuck in
To think these cases are comparable is utterly tone‑deaf. West London men didn’t mind being described like that because they knew it didn’t matter: they – Johnson included – could get away with this behaviour because they had the power and the impunity. It was all a big laugh. Cummings should know this about Johnson by now. By contrast, women in the tech world are routinely mistreated and discriminated against. The joke simply isn’t as funny, if it’s funny at all.
One name for this kind of imbalance is systemic injustice, a phrase Cummings would doubtless hate. He is interested in systems, but not in what they do to people’s sense of self-worth. He cares about what they do to their ability to think for themselves. He thinks the danger of being stuck inside a system you can’t control, from the EU to 10 Downing Street, is that it forces you to take your eye off the ball. That said, he appears to have little sympathy for all those people – from women to minorities to workers – who can’t control the oppressive systems they are stuck in because they have been systematically deprived of their power to escape them. His rule of thumb for finding interesting people is to search out those who are comfortable being right on the edge of things, including the edge of polite society. That’s where the intellectual action is.
He also believes it is crazy that in a world of failing and obsolescent systems, so little time and attention is devoted to studying the organisations that do work. This list is shorter. It includes the government of Singapore, the Mossad, Amazon, Y Combinator (a Silicon Valley company that funds and advises tech startups), and Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s conglomerate. What these organisations have in common is their ruthless focus on what really delivers results. They also recognise and reward exceptional talent. Cummings doesn’t just think that the best mathematicians and physicists are so much more brilliant than their nearest rivals. It’s true of organisational genius, too. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have built their empires because they are orders of magnitude better than their competitors at taking and managing large-scale risk while drilling down into the details of a complex business operation. Their unparalleled wealth is a function of their unique abilities. “Musk and Bezos are similar,” he writes. “Smart enough to understand a lot of technical details but really far out on the tail when it comes to executing.”
Ping! Another update. The blog jumps back and forth relentlessly from an intergalactic Silicon Valley perspective to digging up the bodies back home. It’s a dizzying ride. Last time we were rattling around in number theory and now here we are lamenting the moron count in SW1.
Cummings believes that Whitehall needs a startup mentality, and what it has got instead is team-building exercises and job-satisfaction reviews. One of Cummings’ punchbags is Jeremy Heywood, routinely described as the greatest civil servant of his generation before his untimely death at age 56 during the height of the Brexit crisis in 2018. Four prime ministers spoke at his funeral and described his exceptional talent. Cummings thinks Heywood was vastly overrated: “a genius fixer, not a genius manager”. Heywood made unlikely connections – including between Cameron and Lex Greensill – and he kept the wheels of Whitehall spinning. He patched up ministers’ hare-brained schemes and refused to rock the boat. He treated everyone with courtesy. But he had no eye for system change, Cummings says. He was the system. He wouldn’t have got very far at Amazon.
Cummings is a brilliant provocateur with an extraordinary ability to see through to what many of us would rather not face
How exactly the British democratic state could be modelled on organisations which are anything but democratic is not something that much troubles Cummings. The fact that Singapore, hardly a bastion of freedom, is probably the most democratic of the ones on his list tells you all you need to know. Many of the alternative thinkers Cummings likes to cite are explicit in their contempt for democracy, which they consider close to obsolete. The world has moved on; asking whether something would be “undemocratic” is just sentimental attachment to a passing phase in human history. As elite technical expertise, both machine and human, becomes paramount, the idea of having to wait on public opinion to work out what to do starts to look absurd.
What’s so interesting about Cummings is that although he seems to share some of this deep scepticism about democratic politics and politicians – too slow, too trivial, too easily spooked – he cannot fully embrace it. After all, tracking public opinion in a clear-eyed, unsentimental way is what he does, perhaps better than anyone. He is a genius at it. In the end, his blog reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke: “The food here is terrible!” “Yes, and such small portions!” Cummings thinks that British politics is broken, that the two main parties are ready for the knacker’s yard, and that most of the political class couldn’t strategise their way out of a paper bag. And yet he can’t resist trying to play their game. He wants to abolish the Labour party. He also wants to teach it how to win the next election. He’d like to put quantum physicists in charge of the government. He’d also like to see Rishi Sunak boot Boris (and Carrie) out of Downing Street. He wants to burn it down. He also wants to make it better.
As we settle in to 2022, nothing is resolved. Johnson is in deep trouble and Cummings can claim that many of his warnings about the government’s incompetence and idiocy have been horribly borne out. Yet Johnson is – at the time of writing – still there. Like many, I wondered if Cummings was behind the drip-drip of deeply damaging photos and videos relating to office parties that pulled the rug out from under his former boss in the run-up to Christmas. But then a photo appeared of that wine and cheese gathering on the Downing Street lawn from May 2020, in which Cummings himself is on prominent display, the insolent slouch sitting opposite Boris, Carrie and the baby. Now in an attempted coup de grace he has pointed them away from the 15 May gathering he attended and towards the far more damaging 20 May shindig instead. Two Johnsons but – always – two Doms.
I hesitate to recommend to Guardian readers a blog in which they will find nothing but contempt for many of the things they hold dear. I realised during the months I spent reading Cummings’ thoughts that I represent pretty much everything he loathes: a social scientist, a political commentator, no experience inside government, just another posturing talking head, pretending to have knowledge that I am too ignorant even to know I lack. That didn’t make me enjoy what he had to say any less. Cummings is a brilliant provocateur with an extraordinary ability to see through to what many of us would rather not face. His disdain for so much of British politics goes along with a genuine desire to prevent the idiots from dragging the rest of us down with them.
It’s worth reading Cummings because however much you may wish he would go away, he isn’t going to. His Brexit moment might have passed. But the future probably still belongs to people like him. And it remains as important as ever to try to understand what the other side thinks. Outrage is an indulgence.