Dominic Cummings has been in receipt of a fair few epithets over the past few days. I’d like to add another – brilliant! This does not in any way detract or deflect from the many less complimentary names he’s been called. It is simply to acknowledge the rather evident fact that as well as living down to any or all of the unflattering ways he’s been described, Dom is a very clever individual.
Perhaps ‘cunning’ is a better word. And it has the benefit of the kind of alliteration so beloved of tabloid headline writers. In fact, I’d be surprised if ‘Cunning Cummings’ hasn’t already been used. Another contender might be ‘calculating’. It must be allowed that ‘Calculating Cummings’ is not quite as euphonious as my first choice, and it breaches the tabloid editorial guideline which stipulates that, unless they are scientific or technical terms currently in common usage – such as coronavirus, words of more than seven letters or three syllables should appear only in the ‘Brain-teaser’ crossword puzzle. But it has the advantage of being accurate. Dom Cummings gives the impression of being an exceptionally calculating individual. He has a habit of calculating correctly.
Before I’m sentenced on the fly to a thorough birching, stoning and/or burning for failure to join in the ‘Two Minute Hate’ with sufficient spittle-spraying enthusiasm let me just point out that if I seem to admire Dom Cummings it is only in the context of his work as a political technician. I don’t know him in any other capacity. Which apparently is no impediment to passing judgement on the man in all of his capacities, but I’m only talking about him as a special adviser (SPAD) to the British Prime Minister, Boris F Johnson. And in that capacity he is certainly distinguishing himself.
How long did Catherine Calderwood last under similar circumstances. Or Professor Neil Ferguson? And yet Cummings has managed to engineer a situation in which him resigning could arguably do more damage to the British government than him holding out. He has contrived to put himself front and centre while his boss isn’t even standing in the wings but is already out of the building and on his way to the pub. His press conference yesterday was a masterly piece of political theatre. It resolved nothing. It answered no questions. But it fogged the glass through which his guilt was being viewed just enough to let a few of his friends in the right places suggest he should be given the genuine benefit of the ersatz doubt. Brilliant!
Everything about Cummings’s performance in the afternoon sunshine yesterday was cleverly calculated. Even the fact that it was staged in the open air. Cummings knows that he is not particularly photogenic and that the TV lights do him no favours. Sunshine is his second-best friend some way behind total darkness. Sunshine says happy. Sunshine says normal. Sunshine says the things he wanted said. So did the plain white, open-necked shirt. He was playing it as the ordinary family man sitting in his back garden enjoying a bit of relief from lockdown. Just like everybody does or would like to do. If he could have got away with it he’d have had kids playing football or splashing in a brightly coloured inflatable paddling pool as a backdrop. Even absent that nice touch, the setting took the politics out of the occasion as much as possible.
Timing is everything. Actually, it isn’t. If it was, what’s the point of all that stuff about costume and scenery? But timing is certainly important. Timing in the sense of scheduling the show right before the daily coronavirus briefing and so having a perfect excuse to end the thing at any point. Timing in the sense of turning up late so as to build expectation, cut to a minimum the amount of time left for questions and, not least, demonstrate that he is an important man doing important work for an even more important personage at a time of national crisis. Brilliant!
Cummings’s communication skills were also on display. He was attempting that trick of appearing forthright while saying nothing. Looking like he’s opening up while revealing nothing. Striking that balance between authority and humility. Being neither this nor that so that it is as easy to describe him as that as it is to describe him as this. Saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. Being nobody is better than being the wrong person. Leave a tabula rasa and let the professional manipulators of public opinion do their work after the fact.
Don’t try to look innocent. Go for looking the right kind of guilty. Confess a little to conceal a lot. Leave the scent of apology in the air and let other’s imagine its source and subject. Say nothing notable or quotable on the matter under scrutiny. Save all the best lines for the alternative story. Don’t do a Tony Blair! He played a similar character under director Alastair Campbell but just came across as false and smarmy. Blair didn’t commit to role the way Dom Cummings knew he had to. The acting shouldn’t show. The audience only gets to see behind the curtain when exposing what’s behind the curtain is in the script. The emperor is too busy saving and protecting his people to be bothered with getting laced into his finest robes, but here’s a wee peek inside his wardrobe. SPAD’s are not supposed to be visible to the public. It must be true/real because we’re not really supposed to see this. Brilliant!
Dom Cummings handles situations. He plans several moves ahead. He sees where all the pieces of the puzzle go. Something made it imperative that he travel to Durham. He had to assume this would come out. He planned accordingly. Whatever it was that really compelled him to make that trip, he had to know the risks. Except he didn’t see them as risks. He was confident he could cope with the situation. And so far he has done just that.
You may not like the actors or approve of the action. But you have to admit that the acting is brilliant.
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