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Consulting, blogging, eye test advertising: what next for Dominic Cummings?

Rajeev Syal www.theguardian.com 

For an alleged “career psychopath”, as David Cameron once described him, Dominic Cummings appears to have a number of job options available when he leaves the employment of Downing Street next week.

Friends and rivals wonder whether Boris Johnson’s chief aide – who survived unprecedented anger over his lockdown travels but not a power struggle involving the prime minister’s fiancee – will set up a thinktank, launch a consultancy specialising in data, or just write a series of 5,000-word blogs.

Former colleagues say he can take his pick of possible new jobs, including lucrative consultancy work for hedge funds and City banks keen to take advantage of his expertise and inside knowledge on the UK’s post-Brexit future.

Two Conservative sources said Cummings, 49, might seek to work with Ben or Marc Warner – brothers with whom he has been closely associated and reportedly admires. Ben Warner, a data scientist recruited to Downing Street last year after running the Tory party’s general election campaign model, attended Sage meetings with Cummings during the pandemic.

Marc Warner runs Faculty, an artificial intelligence company involved in an “unprecedented” data-mining operation as part of the government’s response in mapping the coronavirus outbreak. Faculty was hired by Cummings to work for the Vote Leave campaign and counts current and former Conservative ministers among its shareholders. It was paid £400,000 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for the work, according to the contract.

One former colleague of Cummings said: “Dom will want to do something that interests him. He is still fascinated by data and the possibilities of AI. Plus, it would enhance that image of himself as a cutting-edge maverick, breaking new barriers. He would like that.”

Cummings could seek to further influence the direction of government by either setting up a thinktank or taking up a lofty position within one. Another former colleague said: “He will no doubt still believe that there is work to be done, for example on calling for a referendum on the European convention on human rights or civil service reform.”

If he does decide to set up on his own – with a consultancy, lobbying firm or thinktank, Cummings could attract support from several wealthy admirers. Friends say he has close ties with political benefactors including Lord Nash, Paul Marshall and members of the Bamford family behind the machinery manufacturer JCB.

Another option would be to reinvigorate his eponymous blog in which he wrote about Brexit, education reform and even claimed to have predicted the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, he extolled the virtues of a Darpa-like agency, a US government body that encourages emerging technologies, which some claim he could help pioneer in the UK.

Whether or not Cummings decides to join the private sector, former colleagues said that he still commands respect among senior cabinet ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, even as his relationship with Johnson has cooled.

One said there’s a chance Cummings could return to frontline politics if a pro-Brexit government asked him. His campaign slogans helped win a referendum and an 80-seat majority. “Boris and Dom had a close professional relationship which could be reignited again if needed. If the Conservatives need to win another election to preserve Brexit, Dom could be persuaded to return,” the source said.

Seventeen months ago, Cummings was some way from being a nationally known figure when he was invited into Downing Street by Johnson. He had already been labelled a “career psychopath” by Cameron, who was perhaps stung when Cummings paraphrased Bismarck to label the former Tory leader “a sphinx without a riddle”.

His combative nature, ruthless attitude towards fellow advisers and his decision to bend the rules in the first lockdown to travel from London to Durham with his unwell family in May put him under an unprecedented media spotlight for an unelected aide.

In the controversy that followed the revelation of the Durham trip, Cummings claimed he had undertaken a visit to nearby Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. Last month, following a power struggle involving Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, Cummings announced he would stand down in December, and work from home until then.

In the unlikely event that other options are closed, Cummings could perhaps still attempt to cash in by advertising eye tests – but the high street opticians Specsavers said that the peak moment for publicity may have passed. After the scandal of the Durham trip broke, daytrippers took to posing for selfies outside the town’s branch of the opticians.

A Specsavers spokesperson said: “Dominic Cummings has done more than anyone this year to promote the importance of regular eye tests. We very much doubt that anything could top the interest he generated in Specsavers back in May and our store in Barnard Castle is keen to keep a lower profile next year.”

The Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, is the sole investor in GMG Ventures, which is a minority shareholder in Faculty.