The 48-year-old may well find, as many others have, that the jobs market is an unforgiving place for a middle-aged man with a mixed CV.
How will he pay the bills? – Owl
Matt Chorley www.thetimes.co.uk
Dominic Cummings is a man for hire. Cast out of Downing Street after just over a year as the prime minister’s top adviser, he joins the nation’s growing dole queue. The 48-year-old may well find, as many others have, that the jobs market is an unforgiving place for a middle-aged man with a mixed CV.
The best indicator of what “Dom” will do next is probably to examine what he did before. He has spent much of the past decade terrorising the occupant of No 10: first David Cameron over education reforms and later Brexit; then Theresa May during her three years in charge.
No doubt Cummings will consider critiquing Boris Johnson a full-time job, but how to pay the bills?
This is a man who likes the sound of his own keyboard. He could go into newspaper columnising, following Nick Timothy, who moved seamlessly from overseeing May’s disastrous election campaign to telling grateful readers of The Daily Telegraph what the Tories need to do to win. But Cummings would probably struggle with the concept of a word count. When you are a free thinker, you need the space to expound your clever thoughts.
A book, perhaps? Kate Fall, who was deputy chief of staff to David Cameron, argues that it is “good therapy” and a way of drawing a line under a spell in power. “The solidarity of purpose of working in No 10 is difficult to replicate, so best not to try,” she adds.
Yet a book is a bit 18th-century for everyone’s favourite algorithm-muncher. You don’t need to be a superforecaster to know that a return to his blog is inevitable. It is already a vast archive of posts about critical thinking, prediction, physics, economics, war gaming and artificial intelligence. There are a lot of italics and CAPITALS so you know the bits to really focus on.
His last full post was in January, when he appealed for “weirdos and misfits” to work in No 10 — an initiative that led to the hiring and prompt firing of a guru called Andrew Sabisky, who turned out to be rather too keen on eugenics for the prime minister’s tastes.
It’s a literary feast or famine with Cummings: a 20,000-word blog or a three-word slogan. The man who brought us Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Hands, Face, Space could be in demand in the advertising industry. There may not be huge demand, given that the advertising industry has been decimated by the pandemic and economic downturn, but Every Little Helps.
The man who has been hugely critical of the Westminster bubble and its thinktankery inhabitants does know about something — data and artificial intelligence — and is genuinely passionate about the role of tech in changing the way the country is run, and how we live our lives.
Exasperated by the archaic structures of meetings in the fusty cabinet room and ministers making decisions based on printed reports in their red box, he tried to shake things up by creating a Nasa-style mission control in Whitehall, but it was little more than some widescreen TVs on the wall of a bare meeting room.
Having struggled to change things from the inside, he may have more success making the case from the outside. Anthony Seldon, the historian and political biographer, says Cummings should be put in charge of Britain’s national effort to embrace artificial intelligence. “He gets it, hardly anybody else does, he’ll shake everybody up — we need it, and he’ll make it happen. It’ll be our meal ticket post-Brexit.”
Craig Oliver, No 10’s director of communications under Cameron, agrees. “Dominic’s passion is preparing the UK for an AI/tech-driven future. He could do a lot worse than use his undoubted talent to set up a think tank focused on that.” Alternatively, Oliver suggests, not entirely seriously, “he could listen to his bad angel and create a future-gazing agency, calling it FarQ”.
The natural path for someone ousted from government is to move out, then spend the time lobbying those still on the inside. Good lobbyists boast of having the numbers of all the key decision-makers, which Cummings does. Whether they will take his call is more doubtful.
His track record isn’t great, though. Even when in government he struggled to get his way. He opposed HS2 and was overruled. He backed Huawei and was overruled. He even tried to move Boris Johnson out of No 10 and got overruled.
It is also not totally clear that he would enjoy being a man for hire. Famously blunt about what does (and does not) interest him, he is unlikely to want to spend his days lobbying on behalf of Acme Inc, no matter how well it pays.
Maligned as a stupid person’s idea of a clever person, Cummings has played down his intellect, writing in The Spectator in 2017 with admirable honesty: “I am not clever, I have a hopeless memory, and have almost no proper ‘circle of competence’.”
He also once railed against “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties”, which was quite something for an Oxford history graduate. It might do him good to update his reading, though.
After a blogpost this year about the possible uses of artificial intelligence, Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, said the future-thinker was actually stuck in the past. “When you look at the articles he goes to in science, I mean they’re like going back 30, 40 years as if behavioural [science] never existed.”
Some of those who leave government “do”, others just “talk”. The best example of this is Steve Hilton, who was Cameron’s scruffily dressed blue-sky thinker who tried to smash up Whitehall, grew frustrated and then flounced out when it all got a bit tough. Sound familiar?
Hilton is now a host on Fox News in the US, where he has been an outspoken supporter of President Trump while railing against woke political correctness. Cummings could follow suit in the UK, but we’ve already got Piers Morgan.
For a man who appears to be permanently dressed for an autumnal morning spent rotavating the vegetable plot, it is perhaps fitting he has been put on gardening leave. In politics it is still women who have their appearance endlessly critiqued, but Cummings has waged a one-man fightback for fashion equality.
Normally, when people say cracks are appearing in Downing Street they mean political divisions, not the cleavage emerging over the slumping belt line of ill-fitting jeans. But Cummings often struck a bum note on his arrival at No 10.
The beanie, the gilet, the bovver boots, the straw hat, the Big Sur cap, the tote bag, all thrown over studiously unironed shirts or unsubtle slogan T-shirts, were carefully chosen to show just how little he cared.
It didn’t always work. Early in lockdown Johnson held a briefing to reassure the nation that the sharpest minds were at work, while at the back of the room Cummings was spotted with his jumper inside out.
Still, a fashion range aimed at the new dressed-down generation of lockdown home workers can’t be ruled out. Dom at Asda, anyone?
A proper job
He has prided himself on being in touch with the common working man, unlike all those effete elitists in Whitehall. This seems to be based on a spell as a doorman at Klute nightclub in Durham (owned by his uncle; meritocracy in action), which was once voted the second worst club in Europe by FHM magazine, until the one in first place burnt down, allowing it to take the top spot. His nightclub experience of telling people they were going to leave whether they liked it or not obviously made quite the impression on him politically.
Cummings has also boasted of his business experience, including starting businesses in Russia. This amounted to a spectacularly unsuccessful airline that once left without its only passenger.
If he is looking for a return to something customer-facing, an advertisement has gone online for an optical assistant apprenticeship at Specsavers in Barnard Castle. The successful applicant, the advert states, “must be happy to travel”.