‘I’m plagued by worries of disaster’: an interview with Dominic Cummings

The former chief adviser to Boris Johnson on his time in the UK government

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I’ve been waiting over a year to meet Dominic Cummings. Any time Mary Wakefield asked me to interview someone for The Spectator, I said: ‘I’d rather interview your husband.’ And she promised he would do it, one day. I began to lose faith, but at last the day dawns. On the way to see him I run into Mary and their son Ceddy outside their home in north London and she takes me to the kitchen to meet Dom. He is friendly, hospitable, takes me to sit in the garden to talk, and gently shoos Ceddy…

I’ve been waiting over a year to meet Dominic Cummings. Any time Mary Wakefield asked me to interview someone for The Spectator, I said: ‘I’d rather interview your husband.’ And she promised he would do it, one day. I began to lose faith, but at last the day dawns. On the way to see him I run into Mary and their son Ceddy outside their home in north London and she takes me to the kitchen to meet Dom. He is friendly, hospitable, takes me to sit in the garden to talk, and gently shoos Ceddy indoors.

The one thing everyone, friend and enemy alike, agrees about Dominic Cummings is that he has a habit of telling the truth. So I am quite surprised, to put it mildly, when he tells me that Boris offered him a peerage when he left No. 10. Seriously? Lord Cummings of Barnard Castle? ‘No! He said it but then he almost immediately started laughing and realized that that was not exactly the sort of thing that would buy me off. All reports about me getting big payoffs are all false.’

Dom walked out of No. 10 on November 13 and was paid his salary till the end of December, but that was it. Rather than sell his story for a lot of money, he chose to save it for the Commons Select Committee. He now writes a subscription-only Substack blog, charging £100 a year, which has more than 1,500 subscribers.

He told Boris last summer that he planned to leave on 18 December because that felt like a natural end. He’d always said he didn’t plan to stay long and he never wanted a career in Westminster — ‘I don’t like the people and they don’t like me’. But he says his departure was hastened when Carrie —at the time the British prime minister’s fiancée, now his wife — started plotting to remove his allies from No. 10. ‘I walked out. And then she was terrified that Boris would reverse-ferret so she deliberately blew everything up in the media to cause maximum carnage. So then all relations between us were severed and I haven’t spoken to him since.’

dominic cummings
(Leon Neal/AP/Shutterstock)

By then Dom was expendable. Boris had come to his house in July 2019 when he succeeded Theresa May, begging him to work at No. 10 and help push Brexit through. But why did Dom agree, given that he always thought Boris was quite unfit to be PM? He says the alternative was Jeremy Corbyn and a second referendum which he believed could lead to violence: ‘MPs wouldn’t be able to campaign safely outside the M25 without armed guards.’ But also, as he wrote recently, he was thinking that: ‘Instead of saving Westminster and the Conservative party from themselves, this is maybe the best chance we’ll get in decades to destroy the Conservative party and create something much better. Historically, it’s this sort of crisis, like a war, that creates moments of extreme leverage.’

So he agreed to work for a Conservative prime minister in order to destroy the Conservative party? This seems cynical if not outright sinister. And anyway who is this ‘we’ he keeps talking about? He says he means his team, who worked with him on the Vote Leave campaign and followed him to No. 10, but he sounds more like some revolutionary cult leader addressing his disciples.

For the first six months he had great influence over Boris but then, in December 2019, Boris won the general election with a massive majority and ‘the entire situation was completely transformed’. Dom was no longer all-powerful and the major influence on Boris was now Carrie. Dom always distrusted her. ‘I thought she was a wrong ’un from the day I first met her back in 2016 when she was a press officer of some kind.’ Why? ‘Dunno, just a hunch.’

According to press reports, Carrie came to hate Dom because he called her Princess Nut-Nut. He says he’d never even heard that nickname until about 48 hours before he left. He says she accused him of planting a story about her dog peeing everywhere — which drove her berserk. ‘So when Boris and I came to the break-up in the final few days, we sat on the sofa and he started reading out questions from his phone and I said, “Have you lost your mind? Your crazy girlfriend is sitting upstairs texting you questions?” And he was like, “Omigod, you’re right, she’s driving me crackers. We’ve got to find her a job with lots of foreign travel. Could we get the cabinet secretary to give her a job on COP26, traveling round with Kate Middleton?” That’s the weird thing: part of his brain knows that his girlfriend is crackers, but he’s also trapped.’ How trapped? ‘Well, you know this crazy thing happens with people, they just get trapped by crazy girlfriends. It’s not the first time it’s happened.’ Carrie will always count as a crazy girlfriend to Dom, despite the fact that she is now Boris’s wife and mother of his son, with another baby on the way. Sources inside No. 10 say that Dom’s latest claims are ‘risible, like much of Dom’s recent output’.

Did he rejoice when the health secretary Matt Hancock was finally sacked, or was he upset that it was as a result of a sex scandal rather than his incompetence? ‘Well, obviously it would have been better if Boris had fired him last May when I told him to. But if it ends with a sex scandal, fine by me.’ People had been saying that all Dom’s public criticisms of Hancock had made him unsackable, so it was convenient that a sex scandal came along just then. Does he believe there was some skulduggery involved?

‘No, my default mode is, this kind of thing happens all the time with politicians.’ What? Snogging in corridors? ‘Yes. I suspect that all his officials knew what was happening, and they knew that what I said about him was true, and someone in his private office will also have had access to CCTV and thought: ah, we’ll get rid of that lying bastard.’

Has he heard the rumor that there’s a big Michael Gove scandal about to break? ‘Yes, persistently, I would guess from last autumn. But I asked someone who works for Gove and knows him very well and they said categorically “Bullshit”. Politicians live in this cauldron of seething rumors, but almost everything you hear is nonsense.’

dominic cummings
(Peter MacDiarmid/Shutterstock)

I didn’t want to ask about the infamous trip to Durham because he has already been asked every imaginable question about that and given his answer: basically, there were security issues at home. I did want to ask why he didn’t apologize at his rose garden press conference when he had the chance? ‘Because I thought: this whole situation is ludicrous, I haven’t done anything wrong, the PM knows I haven’t done anything wrong, the only reason this stupid thing is happening is because he hasn’t got the balls to stand up to the media.’

But in view of the real damage it did to the country — people who’d been obeying lockdown rules started joking that they were off to Barnard Castle — it would have been more helpful, more public-spirited, to say sorry. It just seems stiff-necked to keep saying: ‘I cannot tell a lie.’ And if he puts such an emphasis on truth-telling, what on Earth is he doing in politics at all? Why does he want to be in such a basically mucky environment? ‘I don’t want to be in it — that’s why I spend almost all my time not in it.’

Before we met I spoke to two of his former colleagues. Oliver Lewis, who had been a young intern in the Department for Education when Dom was there, said he’d been a wonderful mentor. ‘I’d work for him again in a heartbeat.’ But the other, Henry de Zoete, was a bit more equivocal. He said: ‘I love Dom dearly but he does have a habit of burning quite brightly for a few years then disappearing. I think his leaving so suddenly was disappointing.’ When I asked what he thought Dom would be doing in 20 years’ time, he said he couldn’t imagine.

De Zoete also suggested I ask about Dom’s two years in Russia, so I did. ‘I left Oxford in 1994 [with a First in history] and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. The usual high-status options were to go into Goldman Sachs or into politics but I wasn’t interested in that. And I’d read a lot of Russian history and literature and of course at that point the Soviet Union had just collapsed and I thought: that sounds interesting. And Norman Stone, my tutor, had been involved with Moscow trying to buy the archives of the KGB — they had Hitler’s skull and the sofa on which Hitler and Eva Braun killed themselves — so when I told him I was interested in going to Russia, he put me in touch with a journalist there, Liam Halligan.’

He’d never been to Russia before, barely spoke Russian, but anyway turned up in Moscow and slept on Halligan’s couch for several months. He had various jobs that didn’t go anywhere, then tried to set up an airline flying from Samara to Vienna, ‘which was great fun but a total business disaster and we were basically chased out of town by the mafia. Russia was a totally insane place at that time, a kind of gold-rush environment, extreme corruption, oligarchs stealing everything, unbelievable nightclubs. If you were young and single and didn’t have to worry about family, it was a fascinating place to be.’

Was he involved with the security services at all? ‘Well if I were, I’d have to say no! But nevertheless, a categorical “No”. Like everybody in Moscow going to certain places and hanging out in certain scenes in 1994 to ’96, I met KGB people and some shadowy westerners, but that was normal crazy Moscow and nothing a reasonable person would mean by “involved with the security services”.’

What was his ambition at that stage? ‘I never had any.’ Could he have been a complete idler? ‘Oh very easily. I mean, I am a complete idler. Basically I just sit around reading, and talking to my wife and boy, interspersed with occasional projects that catch my interest.’ I tell him that after a lifetime’s reading I’ve concluded that ultimately it’s a waste of time, because I always forget everything. ‘I know exactly what you mean. But when I think what I could do instead I can’t think of anything.’

Is he basically a pessimist? ‘Yes. I’m optimistic about individual humans but pessimistic about the system. The system is prone to disaster. I mean we got lucky with Hitler in all sorts of ways, and lucky that we didn’t have nuclear war later, and people tend to think that’s all in the past, but I think we’re going to keep having horrific problems, and there’s no one in politics or the civil service equipped to deal with them. I guess I’m plagued by worries of disaster more than is normal.’

Since when? ‘When I started reading history in my teens, I got a distinct feeling of how these terrible events, like 1914, can spring up and overwhelm everyone. But at that stage I was thinking in quite an intellectual, abstract way. It became much more immediate when I got involved with politics and Business for Sterling in 1999, because until then I had faith in the system. I thought: they know what they’re doing. But then I saw that was a complete fairy tale. I’d go to meetings and say: “This is what you say the public thinks, but I’ve done all this research and this is what they actually think.” I naively assumed that everyone would be pleased with me for doing all this research. But basically they were just cross and didn’t want to hear it, and that was very shocking.’

Dom worries about things like whether AI will dominate mankind come 2050. I suppose, I joke, he worries about an asteroid hitting the Earth? ‘Oh yes,’ he says seriously. ‘I think we should worry about it, because in the end an asteroid will hit us. At some point it will happen, and that’s why Jeff Bezos and people are building the infrastructure for exactly that. That seems to me a sensible thing to do.’

Gosh. How does he sleep at night? ‘I’ve always slept OK until quite recently, but the referendum aged me 10 years in 10 months, and I was not the same person at the end of it. I was working till 11 every day and then there was one period after our boy was born in March 2016 when he was ill in hospital so I’d work till 11, then go into hospital to sit with him through the night, then go back to work. If you live like that for quite a long time, you start seeing wavy lines.’

Did he take sleeping pills, or other drugs? ‘Never. Not tempted. I think I’m too much of a control freak. I smoked pot maybe twice. I do drink too much. I prefer drinking to sleeping pills. I used to drink whisky an awful lot and also smoke two or three packs a day, especially when I was in Russia. I stopped that about 10 years ago and pretty much went off whisky as well. Now I just drink wine.’

I recently interviewed Stanley Johnson for The Spectator and it made me feel quite sorry for Boris, thinking he must have had a chaotic upbringing. But it meant, Dom remarks, that he is comfortable with chaos. ‘I said to him in July, you’re happier to live in chaos than to give me the power to sort it out. And he laughed and said: “That’s 100 percent right. I’m quite happy to live with the chaos because then everyone will stick to the king — which is me.” Chaos doesn’t scare him the way it does most people. He thinks it makes everyone powerless against him.’

He asks who I would most like to interview and I answer (as I always do) Rupert Murdoch. He recalls that in summer 2015 when he was just starting the Vote Leave campaign, Murdoch invited him to lunch. ‘So I went to his Mayfair block and there were about 15 people round the table, and he asked why I was in favor of Brexit and I told him, and at the end every single other person said no chance. But Murdoch said: “I think this young man is on to something.” He was very quiet but he listens.’

I ask Mary whether she’d been upset by all those weeks of having reporters and cameramen outside the house and she said no, they didn’t bother her — in fact they were always extremely kind and stood back when she and Ceddy came through. And the neighbors were supportive. It was only when the Black Lives Matter people came chanting ‘No Justice, No Peace’ and painting graffiti on the road that she panicked. ‘But I remember looking out the window at midnight and seeing a couple we didn’t even know well scrubbing the graffiti off the road. So that was lovely and I thought: yes, I believe in humans again. It was exactly what I needed to see at that moment. And I think it’s all over now.’

As I leave, Dom is eagerly opening a parcel that has just arrived: an out-of-print book on Bismarck that he’d thought was unobtainable. For all his talk of science and technology, he obviously still retains his love of history. Mary asks: ‘Has he worried you about the state of the world? He usually has that effect on people.’ Actually, I tell her, I’m not very good at worrying but he certainly tried his best. It’s this insistence on doom-mongering that I consider his worst fault. When he was at No. 10 everyone agreed his worst fault was arrogance but, as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said after his Select Committee evidence: ‘He seems to have taken a humility pill.’

Obviously, he misses No. 10, he misses being in the thick of it, he misses Boris — where did their love go? He denies it, of course, but his eagerness to talk about it and his endless online posts show that he is still obsessed. He keeps chewing over the past, while also worrying about whether an asteroid will hit the Earth. I want to tell him: ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ But I expect Mary tells him that all the time.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.