Dominic Cummings: How will the prime minister’s departing chief aide be remembered?

A radical reformer, “career psychopath”, omniscient Svengali, serial election winner, or dangerous disruptor?

As Dominic Cummings bows out of Downing Street, the view of his spell in Number 10 is set to be fiercely debated by his champions and detractors.

The 48-year-old was among Boris Johnson’s first appointments when he became prime minister in July 2019.

He was already a well-known figure at Westminster due his past as a government special adviser and then the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum.

And, while in Number 10, Mr Cummings went on to gain national notoriety – becoming one of the few government advisers to have ever become a household name – due to the heated row over his mid-lockdown trips to his native North East.

His reputation as a divisive character began in the early 2000s, when he served as director of strategy for the Conservative Party.

On leaving the role, he subsequently branded then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith as “incompetent”, adding he would be a “worse prime minister than Tony Blair and must be replaced”.

Mr Cummings later led the successful campaign against Labour’s proposal for an elected regional assembly in the North East, before going on to work as a special adviser for Michael Gove.

However, when the Conservatives were elected to power as part of the coalition government in 2010, Mr Cummings’ employment at Mr Gove’s Department for Education was banned by Andy Coulson, then Downing Street’s director of communications.

Yet, after Mr Coulson resigned amid the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, Mr Cummings became Mr Gove’s chief of staff.

Civil servants made allegations of an “us-and-them aggressive, intimidating culture” under the pair, before Mr Cummings quit his role in 2013 in order to open a new free school.

Then prime minister David Cameron later reportedly described Mr Cummings as a “career psychopath”.

Ahead of the 2016 EU referendum, Mr Cummings joined the Vote Leave campaign but soon clashed with eurosceptic Tory MPs.

He survived an attempt to oust him from the campaign and was later credited as one of the most influential figures behind Vote Leave’s success under its “Take Back Control” slogan.

Hollywood actor Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Mr Cummings in a Channel 4 drama of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.

In 2018, Mr Cummings refused to appear before the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee as part of their fake news inquiry.

He was called to appear to respond to “allegations made against the Vote Leave campaign” during the inquiry and to “clarify allegations about the unlawful coordination of EU referendum campaigns”.

But Mr Cummings accused the committee of having “greater interest in grandstanding than truth-seeking”.

He was subsequently found in contempt of parliament over his no-show.

Mr Cummings was a consistent critic of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit and branded her plans for leaving the EU as “unacceptable bulls***” and attacked a “truck load of c*** ideas” from the government, who he called “morons”.

He also argued against the government’s decision to trigger the Article 50 notification to leave the EU so soon after the 2016 referendum, calling it an “historic unforgivable blunder”.

In 2017, he branded then Brexit secretary David Davis “thick as mince, lazy as a toad, and vain as Narcissus”.

And, despite being the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign, Mr Cummings was no more polite about the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteer MPs.

He claimed the collective had been “useful idiots” for Remain and referred to them as a “metastasising tumour” to be “excised from the UK body politic”.

After the ERG played a key role in toppling Mrs May, Mr Johnson succeeded her in 10 Downing Street and brought Mr Cummings with him.

It was at this point that the “classic Dom” meme was born across Whitehall, with political observers granting – tongue-in-cheek – Mr Cummings the credit for a grander masterplan as Mr Johnson faced numerous setbacks over Brexit.

These included the attempted prorogation of parliament – a suspension that was later overturned by the Supreme Court, as well as the missing of a “do or die” deadline for leaving the EU and the expulsion of 21 Conservative MPs to cost Mr Johnson his Commons majority.

However, the prime minister and Mr Cummings then – finally – got the general election they seemed to have craved and the pair cemented their reputation as serial political winners.

Having teamed up together as part of the Vote Leave campaign, the pair again tasted victory as Mr Johnson led the Tories to a thumping 80-set majority in December 2019.

The celebrations lasted through to 31 January, when the prime minister belatedly oversaw the UK’s exit from the EU.

Mr Cummings – known for often eschewing a suit and tie – issued a call for “misfits and weirdos” to apply to join him in Downing Street under the Tories’ new majority government, although one of those subsequently employed was soon forced to resign.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic then saw Mr Johnson’s loyalty to his chief aide come under severe scrutiny.

On 25 May, in what was an unprecedented act for a political adviser, Mr Cummings took his own news conference in an attempt to try and answer questions over his actions during the national lockdown.

He admitted to making a trip from London to the North East, at a time when he feared he could have contracted coronavirus, with his wife and child to stay on his father’s farm.

Mr Cummings also explained a later trip to Barnard Castle as a means of testing whether his eyesight was good enough to drive.

Doubt was cast over his claim to have warned of the dangers of pandemics “for years”, after it appeared he had used his first day back at work after recovering from the disease to edit a year-old blog post to add a mention of coronavirus.

With the prime minister’s backing, Mr Cummings survived the furore over his lockdown actions – alleged to have been a breach of the government’s own COVID-19 restrictions – and remained in Number 10.

But, since that point, he was said to have moved away from day-to-day concerns and focussed more of his efforts on his passion projects; such as setting up an advanced defence projects research agency and reforming government procurement processes.

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