18 September 2019

power

Spinning out of control

Even after I won a legal battle against Dominic Cummings, it became a test of strength from which he refused to retreat

By Chris Cook

 

Spinning out of control 6'25"

“If you publish a story implying that a cabinet minister committed a criminal offence, you should expect some serious blow-back,” my editor drily told me. But I didn’t. Not really. I also didn’t expect a year of lawfare. I didn’t foresee thousands of civil service hours spent on my articles. I didn’t imagine £12,000 of public money would be spent on barristers. I didn’t expect the vitriol.

In short, I didn’t expect Dominic Cummings, now the man behind Boris Johnson’s premiership.

At the time, in 2011, he was a special adviser to Michael Gove at the Department for Education. It was long before he rose to prominence as a strategist for Vote Leave, one of the pro-Brexit campaigns. But returning to the 250 pages of legal argument and evidence in our legal wrangling, as well as the hundreds of related tweets and articles, you can already pick out the working methods of the man who would become the prime minister’s consigliere.

Dominic Cummings during his time as campaign director at Business for Sterling, March 2001

It all began when I was education correspondent at the Financial Times. I was handed a trove of documents by a source, including print-outs of emails sent by Cummings and Gove, then education secretary. These were government messages – concerning official business – but were sent using a network of private email accounts. In other words, it was a back-channel system of communications, kept secret from untrusted officials.

This was deliberate. In one email, Cummings had written to his colleagues:

“i will not answer any further emails to my official DfE account or from conservatives.com – i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they arc. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this…”

Gove seemed to follow his advice: he did not use his official email to write to Cummings about departmental business. In fact, he used an email account registered in his wife’s name – the so-called “Mrs Blurt” address.

Michael Gove, then education secretary, arriving at the Conservative party conference in October, 2012 in Birmingham. Cummings, then his adviser, is on the right

I had a hunch: I suspected that if I requested an email sent privately by Gove under the Freedom of Information Act, a transparency law, they would deny it existed. The act can – subject to some safeguards – compel the disclosure of government business, and concealing information requested is a crime. But since I had a copy, I could prove they’d broken the law.

It all went to plan. I published my story on the front page of the FT in September 2011. And after a year of legal wrangling, in which they mounted increasingly baffling arguments disputing whether emails sent by ministers to civil servants were really government business, they conceded I was right. They had broken the law. But there was no penalty – either legal or political.

This is because of Dominic Cummings’ superpower: spinning narratives. He is good at creating stylised, simplified stories. During his time in education, he wove a fictional world of powerful local school authorities and over-mighty unions. In the referendum, Cummings painted a picture of an EU where Turkey was on the cusp of joining, and – of course – where the UK sent £350m a week to Brussels.

Even facing a legal problem, like the one I posed, narrative-building and story-control was his approach. His team were told in private, from the start, that I was right on the facts. They could have owned up and admitted their mistake. It would be over in a day. But Dom doesn’t like losing.

Boris Johnson with Sir Mark Sedwill, in 10 Downing Street with Dominic Cummings on the right, July 2019

Internal emails from the time show they thought I might be bluffing, so they tried to bluff back. And then as they realised I had the material I claimed, it became a game, a test of strength from which he could not retreat.

Cummings could not back down from his position – even though it was doomed. The arguments they made in public did not match the submissions they made to the tribunal. In fact, their public arguments undercut their legal submissions.

Even so, Cummings escalated the fight. He used an official Conservative party Twitter account to draw attention to the issue and to attack me personally. He told other journalists that I was mentally ill. He sought to make it a story about a strange journalist fixated on technicalities, rather than a cabinet minister potentially committing a criminal offence. But I eventually won on the law and on the facts. I got an apology from the Conservative party’s head of press for his conduct.

The whole episode illustrated a broader issue, though: he hated being asked to follow a mere transparency law. He has a revolutionary suspicion of convention and existing institutions which can be healthy – but it tips over into a dislike of constraint.

Boris Johnson and Cummings leaving from the rear of Downing Street in September 2019

It is striking that in the idols he praises in his once-regular blog-eulogies to his own judgment, there is space for Otto von Bismarck and figures from military, commercial and scientific history. But you see little of political leaders working within the constraints of mature democracies.

He used to be endlessly irritated by EU legal requirements which insisted the Department for Education had to tender for large contracts. Why could ministers not just pick who they wanted to be public suppliers?

In his time there, Cummings struggled with the fact that other parts of government did not answer to him. My first encounter with him centred on his outrage that the departments responsible for planning law believed schools should follow planning law.

Britain is ill-equipped for such a character. His path to one of the most powerful positions in government has revealed that our public life has a lot of weak links – too reliant on convention and reputation, vulnerable to someone who can spin an alternative narrative.

Cummings returning Downing Street, September 2019

The Information Commissioner, the regulator in charge of freedom of information, is timid. Cummings has been found in contempt of parliament for refusing to attend a select committee, but that is a verdict which carries no sentence. Vote Leave paid a £61,000 fine for breaches of electoral law, but that left no discernible public mark on Cummings – despite his central role in the organisation.

While Brexit is about process and probity – a process won or lost in front of judges – he is a liability. If it becomes about storytelling, he is in his element.

What you thought

Nic Conner, former Vote Leave staffer 

I used to work for Dom and I love him. Like all who worked at Vote Leave, we all became Dom loyalists not out of celebrity (I hardly knew who the guy was before joining), but out of pure respect.

For all his quirks and eccentricities he is a true original thinker, he is the only genuinely impressive person I have encountered in politics. This is because Dom does not operate in the 2D world of party politics and has no time for the charlatan cliques of the House of Commons … He is the Silicon Valley disruptor of politics.

Anne Garvey

His rather banal ability to tell a good story irrespective of the truth and without full details plays directly into the hands of the right-wing press who increasingly to my mind have such an ironclad partisan approach to Brexit that they will spin all too willingly any narrative that complies with their view.

Nick Woods

We need people like Cummings – or indeed the loathsome Alister Campbell – to give the establishment in government (including the EU apparatchiks) a genuinely hard time, in defence of those who are not listened to. Most revolutionaries are unpleasant and nuts.

Niall O’Connor

It would seem that Dominic Cummings is a man who rails against systems, but who wishes to replace broken systems with a system. A man who rails against experts and their inability to predict, but who sets himself up as an expert who can predict.

Photography by Getty Images

Further reading