The Tories’ election victory may have been fronted by the indefatigable Boris Johnson, but underlying it was the vindication of a strategy conceived by his chief advisor: Dominic Cummings.
He may have gained notoriety as campaign director of Vote Leave in the EU referendum, but it was his role in masterminding the 2004 “North East Says No” campaign against a regional assembly where he honed his skills.
Devolving power to the regions was the pet project of the then deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Cummings hammered home that politicians had failed the north east, and that setting up an institution to install more of them would be a waste of money. The “Politicians talk, we pay” message resulted in a 78 per cent vote to reject an assembly. It was the first example of an anti-establishment campaign in the UK in recent times.
Having been born and raised in Durham, Cummings instinctively understands that the preoccupations of the educated classes in London are not those of working class voters in the north east where the Tories gained so many seats from Labour last Thursday. Brexit split supporters of both the main parties, so Cummings calculation was to sacrifice votes in Conservative-held Remain heartlands in the south and instead target leave voters in the north.
A Labour Party whose leader considers Venezuela as a model of good governance was unlikely to convince Tory Remainers to switch en masse. The Liberal Democrats, who in theory posed more of a threat, only managed to secure Richmond Park and St Albans.
Following the election, Cummings has lambasted the political establishment for failing to consider the reasons behind the 2016 vote to leave the EU, incredulous that they “doubled down” and sought to frustrate the result. The size of the Conservative victory endorses his view.
Cummings holds politicians in contempt, arguing that the majority of them are intellectually ill-equipped to govern and more interested in the trappings of office than in achieving change. While he attended an independent school and read history at Oxford, he is no slick insider who walks the corridors of power as a step on the conveyor belt to ministerial office.
He worked for Iain Duncan Smith when he was leader of the Conservative party, but quit eight months later dismissing IDS as “incompetent”. He later advised Michael Gove at the Department for Education, and was the driving force behind the introduction of free schools — while branding senior civil servants and the teaching unions as “the blob”.
Described by some as a modern-day Robespierre, Cummings is in politics to break the system and refashion it. He combines three distinct traits: an understanding of the concerns of working class voters; being solution-driven rather than ideological; and the ability to concoct a clear message. “Take Back Control”, the EU referendum slogan which he devised, and “Get Brexit Done” may have been nauseatingly repetitive, but they cut through.
Many recoil at his ruthlessness, but if securing victory is a hallmark of effectiveness, he has delivered.
Main image credit: Getty