“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.” The remark by the mysterious G-Man sets off the classic noughties video game Half Life 2, after which the suited stranger remain an elusive presence, presumably pulling strings as the player navigates through the dystopian rubble.
The image of the puppetmaster bureaucrat returned to me with the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street yesterday night, following a week of media controversy about comms director Lee Cain, an ally. The official line is that Cummings will continue to work from home, although how receptive his colleagues will be to the dead man sitting is unclear.
Cummings is likely to be remembered for his campaigning skills, widely being regarded as pivotal to the outcome of Britain’s referendum on European Union membership and also credited for the Conservative general election victory last December. His impact is greater than many cabinet ministers, a factor which must contribute to his unpopularity among Tory MPs.
Yet to read Cummings’ blog election victories seemed more of a way station than a destination. Among his main preoccupations are the “hollow men” who he claims run government in Britain, as well as an absence of scientific thinking in public policy.
This was translated into much touted plans to reform the civil service by hiring data scientists, policy experts and “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”, as per Cummings’ advert posted on his blog in January. Predictably this led to the almost immediate exit of new contractor Andrew Sabisky after his views on things like race and IQ were publicised.
Ironically the Covid-19 pandemic provided an ideal opportunity for Cummings to test government’s capacity to make scientific decisions about policy. Britain’s disappointing record in combatting the virus indicates failure somewhere; whether you pin the blame on Cummings or the system he was trying to reform likely depends on your politics.
When the pandemic struck Cummings was seen as the real prime minister, responsible for the attempt to prorogue Parliament last year, the brinkmanship over Brexit negotiations, and various other mischiefs. This mirrored the American media’s perception of relations between president Donald Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon, who didn’t last long either.
The chief advisor’s longevity at Downing Street has been debated since he took up the role in July 2019. Some expected Cummings to leave shortly after the general election, or when he broke lockdown rules in May. He stated in the weirdos job advert that he wanted to make himself “largely redundant” – an ambition he has surpassed. He fought Whitehall and Whitehall won.
If you believe journalists like Nick Cohen, who hate the ‘Vote Leave’ administration, then whoever succeeds Cummings will be able to turn Boris Johnson’s government with a mere whisper in the prime minister’s ear. I expect this is untrue, although Cummings’ absence will doubtless have a subtle effect on how this country is run.
As Cummings leaves to spend more time with his blog, I remain intrigued at how he inspired such fury in his opponents. His repeated ability to win has something to do with it. The debacle over the infamous ‘lying’ bus – known to most Englishmen as a coach – will inevitably be cited, with some arguing he has damaged British democracy.
Much the same has been said of newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch, accused by some unconvincing critics of deciding who runs Britain. Cummings can expect to remain a bogeyman among certain soggy centrists whenever Brexit is mentioned.
To those enemies Cummings was the archetypal G-Man, the wrong man always in the wrong place, skulking in some shadows. Others will venture that Cummings proved just as hollow in government as the men he criticised, if perhaps for different reason. In fact, I will.