Dominic Cummings' spent superpower cannot 'deliver the election' - David Behrens

This election year has only just begun but if the latest scuttlebutt from Westminster is true I can tell you the outcome already. It concerns the secret deal our prime minister – who at the time of writing is still Rishi Sunak – is apparently brokering with Dominic Cummings in the hope of securing a second term at Number 10.

He might as well ask Fred Goodwin for advice on choosing a bank account or the Post Office to recommend him a new computer system.

You can see where Sunak is coming from: Dominic Cummings is a proven winner, having first delivered enough of a majority at the 2016 referendum to make us the pariah of Europe, and then returned to help Boris Johnson hammer the last nail into the coffin.

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But the former master of the dark political arts has been exposed as nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors merchant; a cut-price conjurer who with sleight of hand distracted our attention with pat phrases that for a moment seduced us. Take Back Control. Get Brexit Done.

Boris Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA.Boris Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA.
Boris Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA.

In short, he took us for fools. He might have been right but even fools don’t like being made to look foolish. So we saw through him long ago. We developed x-ray vision for penetrating the three-word slogans that were his stock in trade. And x-ray vision, as we all know, is one superpower Cummings himself lacks.

Yet if the gossip is to be believed, he remains the most potent weapon in the Conservatives’ armoury. That’s quite an indictment; the party is effectively admitting that it’s as bereft as the Home Guard in 1940, when they handed out broomsticks for rifles.

But, hang on, where did the rumours come from? Does Mr Sunak genuinely think the road to the future is best navigated by someone who can’t drive to Barnard Castle without stopping to check his glasses?

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Of course not. The entire narrative appears to have been the product of Cummings’ own, febrile imagination. It was he who ‘announced’ that he had been in discussions with Downing Street about ‘strategy’ and he who sought to set the agenda.

And while Number 10 doesn’t (currently) deny that two meetings with him took place, one in the PM’s North Yorkshire constituency, it is adamant these did not constitute a job offer.

Nevertheless, the very mention of Cummings and Sunak in the same sentence has lit a fire under the Tory back benches, with one unnamed MP likening the prospect to letting an arsonist into your house.

But what I find most telling about the whole business is the degree to which Cummings is still capable of fooling himself. He may be the only credulous man left in Britain.

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This is what he told the Sunday Times about his imaginary comeback: “He [Sunak] wanted a secret deal in which I delivered the election and he promised to take government seriously after the election.”

The key words here are “delivered the election”, as if granting a mandate to govern is entirely and uniquely in his gift, to be transacted as easily as renewing his car tax.

The truth is that nothing Cummings now says or does resonates with anyone outside the Westminster bubble. He proved himself at the height of the Covid crisis to be the last person on earth to understand the mood of the public. His latest claims serve to underline this.

Besides, what voters want most from this election is the one thing that it’s in neither Cummings’ nor Sunak’s interests to deliver, and that’s change. Change from sloganeering; change from paralysis; above all, change from Cummings and all he represents.

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I can say that with confidence because determining what we don’t want from a government is what we all specialise in doing, come polling day. Deciding what we do want is more difficult because we don’t know until we’re offered it – at which point we’ll decide we don’t like it and the whole process will begin again. At the moment we don’t even know what we’re going to be offered because Keir Starmer appears not to know either.

The tragedy of all this is that Cummings could have been an agent for constructive change in Whitehall. When he was briefly inside Number 10 he waged war on the scandal of defence procurement and the broken core institutions of government – but he was brought down by his spin-doctor obsession with reducing complex ideas to the language of a five-year-old, because that was the only way he knew to communicate with ordinary voters. He is the only one now not to see that it’s a spent superpower.

Why? Because as we say in Yorkshire: fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me.

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