How the Cummings myth crumbled

Daniel Leal-Olivas via Getty Images

Dominic Cummings has a dynamic relationship with rules. In 2010, when working for education secretary Micheal Gove, Cummings asked to be contacted through Gmail rather than his official email (“I can explain in person the reason for this,” he said. One likely reason was that that would make it harder to FOI his correspondence).
In 2019, as a senior Number 10 adviser, he was one of the driving forces behind prime minister Boris Johnson’s unconstitutional decision to shut down parliament in order to ram through a no-deal Brexit. Call Cummings a Machiavel; call him a political hooligan; call him a rockstar. The best description might be radical utilitarian: if he feels that the best way of achieving what he sees as the greater good is bending and over-interpreting the rules, he will just do that.


That might have been Cummings’s thinking when he embarked on a trip to Durham, back in April. His wife potentially struck with Covid-19, and aware that he might fall ill too, Cummings decided to drive for over 260 miles to his parents’ house, to ensure that his child would be taken care of in case of emergency. Weeks later, he drove to the nearby Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. Were the trips in accordance with the “Stay at Home” rule the government had adopted to stem the contagion? Debatable. On the other hand, those trips were simply the best way to minimise the risk of suffering – Cummings’s and his family’s suffering, that is. When rules and processes are in the way of achieving the good, they can be sidestepped.
A certain recklessness is indubitably part of what has made Cummings the formidable political operator he is. He gets stuff done, by hook or by crook. He outsmarts his opponents with military-grade techniques, or by applying the teachings of technology CEOs he adores. He hacks his way to triumph. But combined with that efficacy, Cummings had something else: a knack for understanding what people – aka voters – feel, fear, and care about. The Cummings formula is not only about his disruptor mentality, his love for hard science, his data-driven escapades; the formula is also about reading people, and being able to shepherd them, whether through punchy three-word slogans, call to arms against foreigners, or through behavioural science and nudges. But then he drove to Durham.
Surprisingly, Cummings failed to fathom how the UK would react to his trip. He underestimated how angry people would feel – after three months spent indoors and far from their loved ones – upon hearing that a powerful spad had just decided to drive across the country despite the lockdown. The results are in, and they are clear: according to YouGov, 59 per cent of voters think Cummings should resign; over 70 per cent think he has flouted the rules. The most serious blow to the Cummings brand was that this was entirely avoidable – yet Cummings did nothing to prevent it. He walked around as if his face wasn’t well-known to essentially anyone who has ever opened a newspaper in the UK; he drove to Barnard Castle; once caught out, he equivocated, fumbled and possibly worsened his situation. From Dominic Cummings – a man in love with Andy Grove’s motto “only the paranoid survive” – one expects better.
But it was the next chapter of the saga that showed how Cummings blew this monumentally. Back from Durham, Cummings decided to surreptitiously edit one of his older blogposts to add a reference to coronavirus pandemics. During his press conference on Monday, Cummings directed people to his tampered blog as evidence that he had seen the ongoing pandemic coming all along – which of course he had not.


What’s so damning about the blog imbroglio is that it jars violently with the mindset Cummings has spent almost a decade publicly embracing as a blogger and as a political strategist. He sports a “predictions” tag on his blog. He peppers his writing with constant references to “science and markets”, which correct errors through competition and piecing together information. Mere months ago, he urged journalists who were doorstepping him to read Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting, a book describing how some people train themselves to predict future events with preternatural accuracy. One of the chief rules of superforecasting is brutal honesty: accurate predictions add points to a forecaster’s pedigree, while wrong calls knock points off it. Doctoring past predictions is not even contemplated, mostly because the point of forecasting is not about winning, or boasting, or earning prestige. It is about having useful guidance to make important decisions. It is about getting things right, or at least – to quote the title of a blog Cummings loves – “less wrong”. A prediction updated in hindsight is useless, if not as a vanity exercise. That was not very Cummingsian of Cummings.
Granted, Cummings might have decided to again bend the rules – the sacred rules of forecasting and honest blogging – if he thought that would serve some greater good. There might have been something sinister afoot: the edit Cummings added hinted at the possibility that a coronavirus might accidentally escape from a Chinese laboratory – an interpretation of the current pandemic that enjoys some cachet in the online communities Cummings might habituate. But the whole caper was badly done: anyone able to use the Wayback Machine could instantly see that Cummings had fiddled with his blogpost. Whatever the goal, Cummings’s plan was doomed from the start.
So, where does this leave Cummings? Over the years, best-selling books, media exposes, and TV series had helped perpetuate the idea that Cummings was a living embodiment of the armchair-brain meme, an inscrutable 4D-chess grandmaster – yet this totally avoidable scandal evinces much less sophistication and a penchant for blunders. Cummings was painted as an insidious technologist – yet the whole incident revealed little grasp of basic blogging technology. Cummings might survive – and I’m 65 per cent sure he will – the current uproar, but the jury is out on whether the Cummings brand will ever recover.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi


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