Dominic Cummings: The Brexit folk hero who vowed to shake up Whitehall

Dominic Cummings was the adviser who refused to play by the rules of conventional politics and became no stranger to the spotlight.

At the start of 2020, he wrote on his blog of wanting to become “much less important – and within a year largely redundant”, with reports suggesting his departure from Downing Street will be sealed by Christmas.

His rise to political prominence came as part of Michael Gove’s team, but it was his role as campaign director at the official Brexit group Vote Leave which boosted his public profile.

This may have been helped by the portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Channel 4 drama about the campaign, which played up his role in covering a red bus with the hotly-disputed £350 million-a-week for the NHS claim.

After the Brexit vote, Mr Cummings became a folk hero to many who voted to Leave, and he was hired by Boris Johnson as senior adviser at Number 10 when he became Prime Minister in the summer of 2019.

The appointment of the abrasive former campaign director raised eyebrows in Westminster, especially given he had been found to be in contempt of Parliament earlier in the year for refusing to give evidence to MPs investigating misinformation, and was a noted critic of the Whitehall machine.

Benedict Cumberbatch played Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War
Benedict Cumberbatch played Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War

But Mr Cummings has built a reputation as someone who did things differently, working on his goal of reshaping Whitehall, issuing a recruitment call for data scientists, economists and “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to shake up the Civil Service.

He was no stranger to being on the end of blunt insults, and was once called a “career psychopath” by former prime minister David Cameron, according to widely-reported remarks.

And he was not afraid to dish them out either, describing David Davis, the then-Brexit secretary, as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus” in July 2017.

This April, Mr Cummings was back in the headlines when it emerged he had been present at meetings of the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies co-ordinating the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Downing Street insisted there was nothing untoward about his attendance, but opposition MPs and some scientists suggested it risked political interference in science-based advice from Sage.

Mr Cummings also drew criticism when he was caught allegedly breaking lockdown rules by visiting his parents’ home in Durham while he was recovering from Covid-19.

The Lancet published a paper by University College London in August looking at the so-called Cummings effect, finding a “clear decrease in confidence starting on 22 May (when the story of his trip to broke) and continuing to fall quickly in the days following”.

Steve Baker, a former chairman of the Leave-backing European Research Group, described him as a “dominant figure who regards accountability with contempt”.

Writing for The Critic Magazine, he said: “To work for Dom – to obey – is to be respected, to be part of a brilliant, driven team. Dominic cultivates heartfelt and ferocious loyalty, as Vote Leave’s board found when they rightly tried to sack him for regarding accountability with disdain.

“And that, right there, is why I have always opposed Dominic being in Number 10.”