As a liberal remainer type, I’m not sad to see Dominic Cummings leave Number 10. I fundamentally disagreed with his agenda, from Brexit to civil service reform to a more active state aid programme. Yet I cannot chime in with those saying Cummings was a failure, an ad man who blustered his way into the heart of government due to Boris Johnson’s weakmindedness. Why? Because it simply isn't true. And those Labour supporters who are speaking of Cummings' exit as one of the few highlights of this dismal year have revealed an uncomfortable truth: they wish they had someone like him on their side.
This is nowhere clearer than in the criticism of Cummings for his campaigning nous. Cummings has been condemned rather than congratulated by plenty of those who don't like the fact they lost the EU referendum. His enemies assume he employed dark tricks to win but in reality, Cummings is brilliant at campaigning because he understands his audience and pursues them single-mindedly. His gift for sloganeering is easy to take pot shots at, should you be a liberal pundit who feels politics should be above that sort of thing. Yet these same folk would almost certainly have hailed Cummings as a genius had he worked for Jeremy Corbyn or the remain campaign.
Of course, Cummings has some large failings that cannot be ignored. He is bad at the personal side of politics. Dealing with MPs, party grandees and journalists doesn't come naturally to him. Giving short shrift to Tory MPs might have been a helpful strategy during his time at Vote Leave, but it was different in Downing Street, where a softer manner of engagement is needed, even when your boss has a parliamentary majority of 80. After all, you can only strong arm all those groups of people for so long, avoiding diplomacy entirely, before you run out of goodwill even amongst those who desperately want to keep you around. Cummings perhaps failed to see that, whether he liked it or not, the mundane side of politics is unavoidable.
Having said that, if a once-in-a-century event like Covid hadn’t come along, Dominic Cummings could have achieved a lot more during his tenure in Downing Street than many are now assuming. It might be comfortable for remainer-types like me to think that he was always bound to crash and burn, but it's far from clear that would have happened. Without the pandemic, his state aid expansion plans, while ambitious, could have come to fruition. This would have fundamentally changed the British state and its relationship with business. Labour would have been left flailing as it tried to work out what to do with such a major revision of how Britain works.
So is Dominic Cummings a failure? Of course he isn’t. He was a, if not, the crucial figure in the Leave campaign. Without Cummings, would the referendum have gone the way it did? No. He was the man who came up with the winning slogans, kept unhelpful people like Nigel Farage at bay, and ensured that Boris and Gove were put to good use.
I wish Britain hadn't backed Brexit. But the truth is that it did. And even those who, like me, voted remain should give Cummings our begrudging respect.
What about his Downing Street legacy? It's true that it is hardly one to boast about. But how many people would have achieved much had they been in Cummings' position? Boris Johnson took office in December, and three months later Britain was hit by a pandemic. Tackling Covid-19 has been the Prime Minister's most important job in 2020. And while there were clearly flaws in the way Boris and Cummings dealt with this, it is hardly fair to criticise Cummings for failing to implement things proposed before Britain was hit by an emergency that no one (not even one of Cummings' superforecasters) could have foreseen.
Plenty of people are delighted by Cummings' departure, as if his exit means Boris, too, is a goner. But this is simply wishful thinking. The Tories' critics need to stop bathing in sanctimony over their enemies, assuming that those they don't agree with politically must be malign. Instead they should try and figure out what it is that makes their foes so effective. They could do worse than starting with re-evaluating Dominic Cummings.