Although the Before Times prior to March are fairly hazy, it may come as a surprise to some (and a disappointment to himself) that Dominic Cummings is not so much a disrupter of old ways, but enough of an archetype to be almost a cliché.
It’s true that the extent to which the commanding heights of Her Majesty’s Government have contorted themselves in the defence of the chief adviser to the prime minister is – as a certain fictional civil servant might have put it – novel. But a prime ministerial sidekick, often with a studied distain for convention, who the premier considers to have an almost mystic connection to The People? Well, there’s been abuse shouted at them from neighbouring windows before.
These figures are not, of course, unique to First Lords of the Treasury. George Villiers, Joan Quigley, Grigori Rasputin – throughout history, powerful people’s ears have been whispered in by figures eccentric or controversial. Some have been higher profile than others, and a few have met an end unhappier than even those Cummings’s most staunch opponents would wish on him.
Prime ministers might not have the constitutional status of Stuart kings, US presidents or Russian tsars. But they still hold the highest of offices, and since much of their position is rooted in fuzzy convention rather than legally-defined structure, the room is there for someone outside the usual channels to share some of that power.
As the incumbent First Lord is a distinguished scholar of Winston Churchill, we should start with Brendan Bracken – ‘the carrot-topped Irish fantasist’ as Boris Johnson describes him. A Conservative MP who during the war was Churchill’s PPS and then minister of information, Bracken was a firm friend of Winston in his years outside government; they were ‘a party of two’ as the Tipperary-born, Australian-raised schoolteacher and writer put it.
Bracken’s background was kept deliberately obscure even to those who knew him, and he liked to hint that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son. He had charisma in spades and a way with nicknames that would impress the 45th President of the United States: Neville Chamberlain was ‘the coroner’ and Stanley Baldwin ‘the ironmonger’. Unlike Cummings, who believes referencing a mediocre children’s programme counts as inscrutable wit, Bracken truly coined a phrase when, seeing Nye Bevan enjoying Lord Beaverbrook’s hospitality, he exclaimed: ‘You Bollinger Bolshevik, you ritzy Robespierre, you lounge-lizard Lenin! Look at you swilling Max’s champagne and calling yourself a socialist.’
What Bracken does have in common with Cummings is the job he did providing sage advice in manoeuvring his patron into Number 10.
Beginning an association with Churchill by aiding his attempts to return to Parliament following a 1922 defeat at Dundee, Bracken later made it to the Commons in his own right. He was with Churchill on the night of the fateful Norway Debate in 1940, and advised the then First Lord of the Admiralty to say nothing if Chamberlain was to ask him if he would service in a new administration under Lord Halifax. Churchill, against his usual instincts, did just that when he met with the government’s senior pair, and Halifax blinked.
Bracken was appointed Churchill’s PPS, a midnight confidante and putative spin doctor, soon promoted to run the Ministry of Information. He was effectively the government’s chief censor, yet he showed respect to the media.
Despite his skittish nature and explosive talent for rubbing people up the wrong way (‘To know Bracken was to like him; those who didn’t know him did not like him,’ was Beaverbrook’s explanation), his role in charge of government propaganda was a success and he proved as effective a burnisher of Churchill’s reputation as Churchill himself.
Also a successful publisher, founding the modern Financial Times and History Today, Bracken had substance to match his outsize personality. And at the time he was considered by most a positive influence on the sometimes combustible Churchill, for whom he clearly possessed genuine personal concern.
While Bracken was an MP and minister, other prime ministers have turned to those with less clear-cut constitutional roles, and have consequently received more flak than their wartime predecessor. Perhaps the individual whose hold over the premier occasioned the most speculation and innuendo before Cummings was Marcia Williams.
Harold Wilson’s private secretary from 1956 (when he was shadow chancellor), Williams became head of his political office when he was elected Labour leader in 1963, and remained in place until seven years past his 1976 retirement. How they met was a matter of conjecture – she claimed he had given her a lift after spotting her at a bus stop in the rain; Wilson’s press man Joe Haines said it was at a dinner with George Brown and Nikita Khrushchev. Almost inevitably, there was also conjecture as to the exact extent of their relationship.
What is not in dispute is that Wilson rated Williams’s political advice as highly as Johnson does Cummings’s, though more over presentation and tactics rather than policy. She had sharp political antennae, and helped create his down-to-earth image. ‘You had to be a relaxed figure that people could identify with,’ is how she put it, the pair having studied the techniques of John F. Kennedy to see how the perception of the technocratic ex-Oxford don could be softened.
Unlike many of those at the top of politics at the time, she actually watched television and was vital in Wilson’s mastery of the medium. She made sure he had honey and lemon or Lucozade to drink during speeches to protect his throat – and bought green beakers and a carafe from Habitat so no one would see the coloured liquid and assume he was swigging something stronger.
Williams had an understanding of Labour politics, which helped position Wilson for the leadership when it became available. She also made sure once in office he kept up good relations with the party’s left, a not insignificant achievement considering the travails of his immediate successor and predecessor in that regard. But she was a divisive figure even within Wilson’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ inner circle – hence her scathing treatment in the diaries of two other members, Joe Haines and Bernard Donoughue, which bulge with colourful descriptions of supposed hysterical behaviour and bullying, even of Wilson.
Such internal fissures are familiar in the career of Cummings and some (now mainly former) colleagues of his. Even more familiar are the public controversies through with Wilson stood by Williams. Not so much the gossip about the divorcée’s personal life, but the financial scandals. There was the ‘slagheap affair’, a 1974 land deal involving Williams’s brother, a property near Wigan, and a fake signature from Wilson. The eventual imprisonment of a forger did not implicate her but it was a taint. And on Wilson’s retirement, there was the so-called Lavender List of resignation honours, drawn up, it was said, by Williams on her coloured notepaper (she said it was dictated by the PM). It featured some surprising and later notorious names, and, although no impropriety on her part was proved, the now Lady Falkender (her ennoblement had been in 1974) attracted a reputation that stuck through to her death in 2019.
Wilson stuck loyally by her, though, even as she provided Mrs Thatcher’s team with secret advice from 1979. Like Cummings with Johnson, Williams certainly had a hold over Wilson somewhere between implicit trust and awe.
Although other prime ministerial sidekicks ‘became the story’, their positions were not so permanent. Tony Blair let both Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell go, as he also did his perhaps closest if uncontroversial equivalent to Marcia Williams, Anji Hunter, though in her case not through any scandal.
That is true too of Steve Hilton, the Saatchi advertising man responsible for the anti-Blair ‘Demon Eyes’ campaign in 1996. Prior to that, he had worked with David Cameron at Conservative Central Office, and although he allegedly voted Green in 2001, Hilton was recruited by his old colleague for Cameron’s successful 2005 leadership campaign.
He played a big role in opposition, the days of green-tinged hoodie-hugging. And while suspected of New Labour tendencies by others in the Conservative operation, he was installed at Number 10 as the Coalition took charge, his barefoot, T-shirted blue-sky thinking given fictional form as Stewart Pearson in The Thick of It.
Like Pearson, Hilton soon found that once in power, his influence over his boss was not what it was. He left after two years with a bitter memo railing against the Civil Service, a dislike he has in common with Cummings. A post-government odyssey has taken Hilton to Silicon Valley and now Fox News, and 2016 saw him teaming up with Johnson and Cummings against Cameron in the EU referendum campaign.
But Hilton, the godfather to Cameron’s late son Ivan, did not have the intellectual or psychological hold over his friend that some suspect Cummings of having over Johnson. Perhaps this might say something about the two premiers? And Hilton’s departure was not under the pressure of a media or political furore, as with other advisers: Sir Alan Walters (admittedly not Margaret Thatcher’s most important aide), or Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (who most certainly were for Theresa May).
Of course Cummings might yet meet such an end, unless he can spin it as a planned retirement (he did once have a reputation for astute media management). But for now the question is whether his continued employment is a sign of strength or weakness on the part of Johnson, who is clearly prepared to run down what was once an impressive store of political capital.
Maybe May regrets letting her inner circle depart after the 2017 election, perhaps leaving her shorn of psychological support in the difficult period that followed. But would Wilson have had a less fraught premiership and less tarnished reputation had he felt himself able to operate without the person described as ‘The Other Woman’ in his life? (The description came from Herald-Tribune, who were successfully sued.)
It is unsurprising, even touching, that those who have reached the political pinnacle feel loyalty to those who helped get them there, especially as the sidekick on the way up is often from outside the more established (or establishment) clique that surrounds a prime minister once they are actually in office (Cummings, of course, had previous government experience and is impeccably connected). But a prime minister ought to be capable of looking as if they have the confidence to do at least some of their own thinking, and not appear a supplicant.
Churchill’s employment of Bracken was never tested by scandal, and in any case Winston’s admiration for his confidante seems well judged (although in another age his pre-empting of a military announcement in the war might have got him into peril). Wilson’s reasons for allowing the damage Williams did to his standing in some people’s eyes are obscure. Cameron, whatever his other weaknesses as premier, was confident enough to deal without his trusted whisperer once he was governing rather than opposing – and was prepared to admit he stuck too long by another aide, Andy Coulson.
Cummings, even if Durham police had taken a harsher view of his jaunt, would not have faced Coulson’s penal fate. It appears a very weak flavour of national leader that is prepared to sacrifice so much credibility over a man so careless with the effect he is having over the standing of the premier he is supposedly serving. Still, Dominic Cummings is far from the first man (or woman) behind the man (or woman) to inspire such a feeling. And maybe if someone has reached the pinnacle, we shouldn’t begrudge them the comfort of still having someone to look up to.