When US Air Force officer John Boyd returned home from running a military base in the Thai jungle in 1974, the US war machine was being driven from Vietnam. Boyd reasoned that plucky underdogs outmaneuvering great powers was not inevitable. What if, the burgeoning strategist asked, the American military could cut dead weight — and learn to be as nimble as any Viet Cong guerrilla?
Answering this question has defined the career of Dominic Cummings, Britain’s controversial political operative who, this Wednesday, carried out an extended public mauling of his former master Boris Johnson. Cummings presents himself as Westminster’s Boyd — a scrapper, a varied thinker, a bull tearing through both the enemy and his own army’s bureaucracy. This synthesis of dominance, insurgency, and maneuver defined both his Brexit campaign and his 2019 election bid, which saw a radical Labour program beaten because a party that had already ruled for almost a decade convinced people it represented a greater break with the status quo.
When Cummings got his Boyd moment — his chance to savage the generals and princes of his own Pentagon — it made for grim, gripping television. In a seven-hour parliamentary committee hearing, he laid tens of thousands of deaths at the doorstep of the administration he had helped lead and showed uncharacteristic humility in doing so. He outlined the preventable failure of state systems, from health to social care to national security and procurement. He castigated not just Johnson but ministers, civil servants, and most of the people and institutions in British public life. He also aired a theory of what went wrong; but what he didn’t say is as important as what he did.
The Jester Who Became King
Cummings presents Johnson as a dangerous idiot, those around him as unimaginative courtiers and cynical liars, and himself as a rare adult in the room.
This story is illustrated with claims of Johnson vacationing in the countryside while all hell broke loose, of offering to be injected with coronavirus for a TV stunt, and of panicking about a news story involving his girlfriend’s dog as hospitals hurtled toward breaking point. Cummings claims that the health secretary is a constant liar, and that the civil service chief wanted to frame national coronavirus strategy as “chickenpox parties.”
Cummings also paints Johnson with a callous streak; from his “let the bodies pile high” outburst to dismissing the virus as something that only affects those over eighty. It’s rare to see anyone, let alone a former chief adviser, strafe a sitting prime minister in this way. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications,” Cummings says in response to a question about public relations. “If the prime minister changes his mind ten times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day, you’re going to have communications disasters.”
In many ways, we can only respond with: quelle surprise. The new evidence is significant, but it could easily have been guessed based on Johnson’s history and personality. And while the story of a deadly pantomime rings true, it leaves an important gap. Take Johnson’s speech last February, well after the World Health Organization had declared an emergency:
There is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic, and a desire for market segregation . . . at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.
Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge, with its cloak flowing, as the supercharged champion of the right of populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.
This reflects more than a mistaken view that the threat of economic damage outweighs the threat to life. It articulates an ideological and material choice — to be less stringent even than comparable countries — with the explicit aim of extracting additional profits for the wealthy few. Such conduct would continue throughout the year of hell that followed. As a second round of restrictions became inevitable late last year, government messages were still ordering workers into insecure offices, just to protect the profits of chain cafés’ landlords.
There is an extensive literature on the way this disaster has been shaped by an underlying deference to markets and financial elites, from late lockdowns to vaccine manufacturing. It is notable how rarely even Cummings’s questioners engaged with it. Richard Horton, editor of medical journal the Lancet, has published a new book offering a fluent account of multiple political drivers of state failure. Cummings is an expert political operative, and yet both his mammoth Twitter thread on lockdowns and his committee evidence are almost devoid of politics.
A Political Theory of Everything But Politics
The running thread in Cummings’s many blogs and papers is a working theory of political operations. Despite having worked only with conservatives, he is scornful of “ideologues.” He subordinates everything to people’s abilities and assumptions rather than core beliefs.
Military theorists from Boyd to Carl von Clausewitz, alongside physicists, educationalists, entrepreneurs, and generals, do make it into Cummings’s work — while politicians and philosophers are largely dismissed. He praises both General Leslie Groves of Manhattan Project fame and warnings from bodies like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as to the dangerous consequences of nuclear proliferation. In this account, he cites Groves as an expert project manager and the Bulletin scientists as people who identify real and serious risks. Political lacunae emerge quickly; what if the high likelihood of nuclear accidents Cummings fears can be ended by addressing not just nuclear security, but the political conditions that lead to nuclear hair triggers existing?
Cummings offers a broad range of fairly neutral operational advice; on developing a “scout mindset” philosophy of challenging one’s biases and seeking new information, “Red Teams” to spot errors, using forecasting tools, creating better working environments, and understanding statistics in a way that aids rather than blunts intuition.
His ideas on institutions chime, sometimes surprisingly, more directly with left-wingers. Many would share his view of the Westminster and Washington bubbles as full of people disconnected from reality and saturated by intelligence sources consisting of feedback loops from their immediate circle, amplified by Twitter. We know politics is dominated by people from similar backgrounds who are hostile to reform, organizations with bad incentives and assumptions, and political projects with priorities other than the public good, and we understand that there are structural reasons why disasters keep happening.
Cummings probably sympathizes with the methods and conclusions of John Seddon, who applies complex-systems lenses to understand the failures of New Labour’s neoliberal restructuring of public services. But Cummings’s theory of the state strips back politics. In his account, there are incompetent public-private partnerships, like PFI (private finance initiative) hospitals, and competent public-private partnerships, like the Moon landings. And herein lies the problem with a competence-first approach: knowing how to use a Cynefin decision-making framework is no bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the basis of anyone’s worldview.
A Few Good Men
Cummings’s theory of political operations holds that large institutions are prone to develop flaws and ignore them, requiring small groups of creative and skilled people to disrupt them by force and achieve progress for society, usually measured in terms of technological advancement or economic growth. “People, ideas, technologies, in that order!” is an idea he borrows from Boyd.
A Silicon Valley start-up and a Leninist could both agree with the basic prescription. But shorn of politics, such theories find darker roots. They assume that select individuals do, can, and should mold history, combined with an ultra-rationalism that brings Cummings into the orbit of IQ obsessives and eugenicists. Cummings’s implied defense of intellectual elitism — that “ability” is often not possessed by elites and can be found by people from all backgrounds — falls somewhat flat given his lifelong association with the party most responsible for irretrievably deepening class inequality in Britain.
Cummings may have heterodox influences and an idiosyncratic manner, but these ideas are all familiar. Encouraging “social mobility” while accepting the unavoidable nature of inequality on the grounds of differential abilities? Aiming for market-state harmony guided by expert individuals? Belief in an ill-defined “progress” solving all social problems? A disregard for the mundane concerns of ideologues? These are all canards of the standard neoliberal consensus. This consensus assumes that specialists must govern and the masses be governed, and that popular participation is either impossible or undesirable. In fact, Cummings is often more of an advocate for the fresh breeze of transparency and public scrutiny than much of the center.
Indeed, elitism defined Remainers’ desire to overturn the referendum result that Cummings orchestrated; “people did not know what they were voting for,” we were often told. The Brexit divide further illustrates this consensus. For Remainers, multilateral integration meant progress, while for Leavers, bureaucracy stifled it. Questions of what constitutes progress or the economy, and who benefits from it, were off the table. Every chaotic unacknowledged force in British politics was released from Pandora’s Box during the EU referendum and then quickly channeled along completely conventional lines.
In Cummings’s evidence this Wednesday, he decried the 2019 election choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, calling for undefined “better leadership.” The same point, that ideologues should be replaced by competent technocrats despite the manifest failure of such people to deal with any of the crises we face, was made by basically all the centrist establishment commentators he derides. He dismisses Labour leader Keir Starmer — a “beta lawyer and a gamma politician” who is subservient to the media bubble — but Cummings’s prescriptions for the center-left are the same boilerplate centrism offered by that media bubble. He tells Starmer to hire a US data scientist with conclusions like “avoid culture wars,” “protests shouldn’t be aggressive,” and “appeal to traditionalist values not material interests to win back the Rust Belt / red wall.”
The Self-Fulfilling Cassandra
Cummings does not offer a fundamental break with the Westminster consensus, but he is still too much for it. So why did the Conservative party come to rely on him despite routine disloyalty and keep him on even after the Barnard Castle incident? His policy ideas were certainly of interest to a Johnson administration that is pivoting toward greater state intervention and a new conservatism. More simply, Cummings was always going to be allowed to move fast and break things where some Conservatives wanted him to, but not where it damaged their interests.
In the early 2010s, Cummings was at Michael Gove’s Department for Education. He made the case for an “Odyssean” education focused on giving children new skills to solve grand challenges; “an education that starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them (‘integrative thinking’).”
What these reforms produced was something quite different. New thinking was restricted, not increased — with overexamination, a reactionary culture war insistence on canceling Mary Seacole, and “traditionalist” teaching of the kings and queens of England. Meanwhile, New Labour’s program to turn state secondary schools into “academies” was expanded, reducing local-government oversight and splitting responsibility between the central state and profiteers. The result was falling standards, bureaucratic confusion, and a brace of corruption scandals.
The Conservatives were not motivated by Cummings’ Odyssey. But they certainly found him useful in destroying teachers’ unions, opening education up to profiteering, and using private finance to paper over the cracks of a cuts program that created a teacher retention crisis, left schools struggling to afford textbooks and basic resources, and built up a multibillion-pound deficit in building repairs.
This same austerity program was meanwhile defining the future lethality of the coronavirus pandemic. Public health budgets were slashed. Emergency stockpiles were left to degrade and not replaced. The state became ever more dependent on the underperforming cronyish giants who would later run the Test and Trace debacle, a failure-ridden contract-tracing scheme which is consuming £37 billion and even now remains prone to major errors. Away from health policy, the broader decision to slash state services and tolerate a tidal wave of exploitation and insecurity in the workplace alongside a chronic housing crisis ramped up health inequalities, determining who lived and died.
Dominic Cummings claims to be one of few Westminster operatives to think seriously about existential threats, writing on nuclear accidents, pandemics, interstate wars, drone swarms, genetics, and other examples of how “the combination of physics and politics could render the Earth uninhabitable.” But the “ideology” he so decries compromised such insights. His bosses spent a decade making the country ever more vulnerable to future crises, and no alarm was sounded. Again, it is not too surprising that the neoliberal consensus would produce a Cassandra who fulfills her own prophecies by aligning with those who help make them manifest.
Cummings blames the entire political class: “right and left, Leave and Remain” did not take the pandemic seriously enough, he said. This is somewhat true of the center; mainstream commentators failed to take the government to task and raged at those who did in the crucial early days, and the opposition did not present a serious alternative strategy. But government strategy was challenged, and by many.
We Were Right
Clinical researcher Christina Pagel correctly points out that Cummings’s views on what could have been done differently essentially contains a laundry list of recommendations made by scientists’ group Independent SAGE. In politics, it has been the Left that has consistently backed the recommendations of those in the scientific and medical communities demanding serious and expansive action befitting an advanced economy facing a massive threat to life.
Cummings admitted there was “no plan” in government for the furlough scheme in March — while the last days of the Jeremy Corbyn / John McDonnell Labour leadership were spent lobbying for it, alongside trade unions. Cummings criticizes the government’s failure to compensate people for lost pay over self-isolation — something virtually every socialist and trade unionist has been demanding. The false binary between “saving lives” and “saving the economy,” the need for NHS funding and measures to reduce health inequalities, and following what worked in Southeast Asia were all talking points on the Left, ridiculed by many in the establishment even after the pandemic’s first wave. Dominic Cummings’s aim this week was certainly not to vindicate socialists’ view of public health, and yet that is the objective effect of his evidence.
This week’s long hearing points not just to pandemic response failures, but also to how Britain is structurally unprepared for the period of crisis and traumatic transition it is going through. This is why the debate on the pandemic must be forced to include a far-reaching conversation about political choices — because modernizing a creaking state that is losing not only the will but the ability to protect and improve lives means challenging wealth and power, not simply badly performing politicians and civil servants.
One benefit of the years of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and similar figures is that the movements they spawned have developed an expansive set of ideas about future survival and prosperity: on the Green New Deal and climate justice, on reducing working hours and shaping the future of work, on arms control, and on bringing tech giants and finance under democratic oversight. The grim year we have just experienced is yet another reminder of the urgency of finding ways to put all these ideas into practice — and if there is a lesson from Dominic Cummings, it is that strategy and management matters in this process. But politics comes first.