Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, violated a national lockdown he had himself designed, at a time when Britons were dying from Covid-19 by the thousands in care homes and hospitals across the country.
In a historic press conference of the kind hitherto reserved for elected ministers and cabinet members, Cummings refused to resign despite huge pressure from across the press, politicians and the public—even from within the Conservative party itself and its bilious organ the Daily Mail. He did not even deign to apologise.
Swerving the usual contritional rhetoric characterising media showdowns following hot on the heels of scandal, Cummings responded to questions with the sneering arrogance of a man who sees himself unbound by the restrictions meted out to everyone else: ‘I don’t regret what I did,’ he flatly told Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC.
The political and public outrage at Cummings’s actions and refusal to resign highlights the unusual position of the chief adviser, a political role armed with excessive power and influence yet unaccountable to any whip or vote. Cummingsgate has laid bare a widespread uneasiness about the machinations of those with intimate access to, and untold influence over our leaders, the svengalis who pull the political strings but who, unlike their ‘masters’, cannot be deposed.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted that Cummings has ‘gone down in history as the first adviser to give a live press conference in Downing Street’. Overturning the natural political order, ‘In Cummings’ case, it is ministers who work for the adviser: one after another has been sent out to defend him’. El País called Boris Johnson’s closest ally a ‘machiavellian henchman’ whilst Le Monde pointed out that, unlike most advisers who ‘usually remain in the shadows’, Cummings had the gall to address the media openly and with ‘no question of apologising’.
In this drama, the adviser has emerged from the political wings, shedding the native darkness from which he usually orchestrates the masque of state to take centre stage and flex his influence for all to see.
If Boris Johnson resembles the dithering, melancholic sovereign Walter Benjamin described in Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928), the leader ‘with whom rests the decision concerning the state of exception’ yet who ‘shows that, as soon as the situation arises, a decision is nearly impossible for him’, Cummings is his atavistic obverse, a scheming super courtier lifted straight from the early modern playbook; a hated favourite with an iron grip on the ear of the king, openly courting outrage yet apparently untouchable by any repercussion.
Cummings’s overweening political hubris smacks of Thomas Cromwell, the chief adviser to Henry VIII whose supreme influence over the king made him the most powerful and hated man in Tudor England. Like Cromwell, Cummings cut his teeth as a political pitbull before going on to mastermind an epoch-making break with Europe; emulating Henry’s master of strategy, Boris’s favourite occults his adviser’s hubris in a calculated everyman appearance.
During his time as special adviser to Michael Gove (2007–2014), Cummings gained notoriety for ‘the dark arts [he] deployed to get his master’s way’, echoing Cromwell’s insidious campaign to undermine the church that stood in the way the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon or his later role in engineering Anne Boleyn’s execution.
In 2016, as the director of Vote Leave, the ‘architect of Brexit’ masterminded the apotheosis of contemporary political ‘machination’, a fitting homage to Cromwell’s pioneering break with Europe during the English Reformation.
At the People’s Vote march in October 2019, a satanic effigy of Cummings as Johnson’s puppet-master was paraded in Parliament square, echoing contemporary attacks on Cromwell who, as Howard Leithead puts it, ‘controlled everything from the centre’. Just as Cummings spins out his schemes in Johnson’s policymaking, Cromwell’s ‘intellect presided’, according to B.W. Beckingsale, over Henry’s actions.
The portrait of Cromwell by Hans Holbein depicted Henry’s confidant in a simple cap and gown, a far cry from the usual sartorial extravagance of the courtiers and ministers of the early modern state, not unlike Cummings, who is noted for his atypically casual style and wore a creased, open-necked shirt for his career-defining showdown with the British media.
Henry initially stood by Cromwell when courtiers, clergy, and commentators across England called for his head, just as Boris Johnson did in an unprecedented public defence of Cummings on May 25.
At his execution in 1540, Cromwell remained defiant to the end, telling the crowd: ‘Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue’, a striking anticipation of Cummings’s denial of any wrongdoing in the face of universal condemnation in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street.
In Benjamin’s analysis, early modern historical drama lacerates a political world ‘faced with […] a continuing catastrophe’ in which ‘historical activity’ is subject to ‘the base machination of schemers’. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing a disturbing echo of early modern statecraft, a realpolitik trauerspiel playing out against the background of a historic crisis.
‘I gave a full account to the Prime Minister of my actions’, said Cummings in the rose garden, barely concealing his contempt for the public and the assembled media. Yet, rather than diplomatically carving out the extent of his accountability, Cummings merely underlined to the nation that he remains answerable to no-one, not even Johnson, the one man who nominally out-ranks him but who remains firmly under his tutelage.
Benjamin says that ‘in every case the intriguer […] assume[s] a dominant position in the economy of the drama’. Following on from Johnson’s turn as the sacrificial lamb, Cummings treads the political boards as contemporary history’s schemer-in-chief, thrasonical and hubristic in the advertisement of his unassailable power.
Alastair Campbell, another of the UK’s canonical schemers, called the whole affair a ‘ludicrous, ludicrous episode’. Going back to the Latin origin of the word, Campbell is unwittingly right: ludicrum means ‘stage-play’, and later came to mean a jest or comedy.
According to Benjamin, the figure of the schemer or intriguer marks the point where ‘comedy [Lustspiel] migrates into tragedy’, that is, ‘trauerspiel reaches its high point not in canonical examples but where, with playful transitions, it makes the Lustspiel within it resound’. The unconcealment of the true power and influence of Cummings, the ludicrous schemer whose ‘base machinations’ turn the wheels of contemporary political history, has merged Johnson’s pathetic tragedy with true trauerspiel.
‘What is the court anymore but a den of murderers? / But a place of betrayers? A dwelling of hoodlums?’ cries Michael Balbus in Andreas Gryphius’s Leo Armenius (1650). Rushtan, the intriguer-choreographer of Daniel Casper von Lohenstein’s Ibrahim Bassa (1653), is decried as ‘a dishonourable court hypocrite’. Cummings represents the latter-day incarnation of the adviser-intriguer, every bit as cunning as his political ancestors in the early modern world. He is, to borrow from Benjamin, the ‘organizer of the plot strands’, ‘the ballet master’ whose ‘depraved calculations’ dance out their diabolical logic unchecked at the heart of power.
Given the fallout, the question is not if but when Cummings’s overweening pride tips over into tragic hubris to precipitate a spectacular, Icarian downfall. Unlike Polonius, Cummings appears to have dodged the blade of consequence by emerging out from behind the arras and openly parading his authority and influence. Yet even Cromwell, the master of ‘base machinations’ and the man many referred to resentfully as the ‘king’, eventually met a grisly end on the scaffold.
Sooner or later, when the closing act rolls around, the world will look on as Cummings’s hubristic overreaching slides inexorably into a final, fatal political denouement. All we have to do, as the audience to this most lamentable tragedy, is continue to watch it all unfold.
Josh Mcloughlin is the founder and editor-in-chief of New Critique.
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