Dominic Cummings began his highly unusual press conference by saying that it had been many years since he’d said anything on television.
Indeed, when I asked him for interviews in recent years, I’ve had blunt refusals.
But a few months after his successful referendum campaign in 2016, he agreed to be interviewed for a book I was writing about Brexit.
I spoke with him at his home in Islington for over an hour and a half, and to my knowledge he’s not given an interview like it since.
From what I learned of him in that meeting, I would conclude that in the last 48 hours, Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser has made a calculation. Wrongly or rightly, he thinks people outside of the Westminster bubble, outside the media, will see this whole thing a bit differently and be less judgemental.
Several times during the 2016 referendum campaign his back was against the wall, and each time he told his team not to panic. I imagine he’s said the same to Boris Johnson over his apparent breach of the lockdown rules.
Dominic Cummings has a firm belief that he is more in tune with people’s thinking than most politicians, journalists and columnists.
Certainly, when it came to EU campaigning, he is probably right about that. For example, when President Obama told the British public that they would be “at the back of the queue” for a trade deal if they chose to leave the EU, it was considered a dark day for the Vote Leave campaign.
Cummings told me “there were a lot of glum faces” in the office that day but he told his team: “This only matters to the Westminster bubble.
“What people on the media are saying and what you are seeing on TV is not the same as what people think, so don’t get psyched out. We’ll go off to focus groups and we will find out next week what the true picture is, but don’t worry about it.”
From the focus groups Cummings concluded that Obama had gone in too hard. He told me: “If Obama had said ‘look this is not going to be good for you guys’ in a much gentler way people would have heard him and thought, ‘oh that’s not good’, but the ‘back of the queue’ people’s reaction then wasn’t ‘were going to suffer’ it was ‘who is this guy coming over here and what deal have they done behind the scenes to help Cameron?'”
As someone who has never considered himself an establishment figure Cummings couldn’t bear the thought that people might now be wondering what’s going on behind the scenes with him and what backroom deals have allowed him to keep his job.
“I’m not a party person. I get involved in things I think are worthwhile,” he said back in 2016 as we sat in his front room. He’s never considered himself a Conservative or indeed a member of any establishment group. For many years he stood outside and looked in, mostly with a critical eye.
Which is why even when David Cameron was at the height of his popularity in the Tory camp, having unexpectedly won the 2015 election with a majority, Cummings was plotting how to defeat him in the referendum. He told me people didn’t appreciate that “I’d happily chop David Cameron’s head off every day in order to win”.
Cummings had fostered a contempt for politicians ever since he’d joined Business for Sterling in December 1998 – the campaign to keep the pound. The lesson he says he learned from this first dabbling in politics was that “99% of MPs are dreadful characters and if you want anything professionally organised you’ve got to exclude them”.
He added, the EU issue in particular attracted “a particularly unbalanced set of people.
“The Eurosceptic world is a very odd world populated by very odd people,” he said.
“Generally, not always but generally, the longer they have been involved in it, the higher the probability that they will be odd.”
His efforts to push many traditional Eurosceptic politicians to the sidelines during the Vote Leave campaign didn’t win him many friends and there had been an attempt in January 2016 to get him sacked, which he’d managed to survive.
Interestingly one MP who’d stood by him at that time, Steve Baker, was one of the first to come out and say he should be sacked over the alleged lockdown breach.
Cummings had written in the Spectator in January 2017: “Steve Baker often disagreed with me, sometimes very strongly, but he was a rare person in the campaign – an honest man.”
This time Mr Baker didn’t have his back, but it seems Johnson still does. It was clear from talking to Cummings that Johnson was to him, a rare thing – a politician he respected, along with Michael Gove, who he had worked for in the Department of Education. The bond of mutual respect between the two grew stronger in that extraordinary campaign.
Cummings is of course credited with the hugely successful slogan Take Back Control and it’s true to an extent that he created it. But he did so – not by musing for hours or writing slogans on a wall as conveyed in the C4 film where he is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. No, he came up with it by trudging through focus groups and listening to people. His slogans are so potent because they come from the mouths of the British public.
In 2014 he conducted focus groups to assess attitudes to the EU renegotiation and a possible In / Out referendum. In a 19-page report he produced in June that year for the Eurosceptic movement the phrase Take Back Control is mentioned numerous times and Cummings comes to a very telling conclusion.
In it, two years before the referendum, he writes: “In a referendum it would be important for the OUT campaign not to take specific positions on any issues as this would only split the campaign.
“Instead the OUT campaign should simply say ‘whether you think X or Y about Z, the most important thing is that we take back control of Z.”
For example, keep it vague on whether you think immigration is a good or a bad thing and just talk about having control of it.
The slogan of the 2019 General election campaign Get Brexit Done was equally vague – allowing anyone to project their own desires as to what getting it done might look like.
The problem with vague and aspirational is it doesn’t work for pandemic messaging. With the easing of the lockdown came the message Stay Alert and people were suddenly asking themselves what they didn’t ask about Take Back Control or Get Brexit Done – what does it actually mean?
Stay At Home was a clear message, people thought – but now Mr Cummings has suggested that due to exceptional circumstances he was right to not stay at home.
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