Dominic Cummings has started to believe he’s cool. What can you say but, ‘Ooooh’?
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He likes to play badass, but if he’s so ruthless why does the cabinet still contain such mediocrities, asks Guardian columnist Marina Hyde
With regret, I must begin with an apology. As the Westminster-based events of Thursday unfolded, I recalled with mounting horror that I had at one point during 2018 described a Theresa May cabinet as “a government of all the talentless”. As so often over the past few years, this would turn out to be an absolute failure of the imagination. I now realise I was, back then, living through a halcyon era of political accomplishment. Jeremy Hunt, Philip Hammond, even David Davis … those guys were like the Time Lords – or Socratic statesmen, or masters of the Glass Bead Game – compared with what was reshuffled into existence on Thursday.
And so to a series of appointments widely reported as a triumph for prime ministerial carer Dominic Cummings, who never lets up in his quest for the best and the brightest. Which maverick aces in the pack are going to Top Gun? I feel like this morning’s cabinet meeting should have been akin to the scene where Maverick turns up at Miramar and meets Iceman and Hollywood and all the other shit-hot talents he’s going to avert world war three with, somewhere over the Indian Ocean. But instead all I’ve got is a Sky News clip of Boris Johnson – looking like someone forced Andy from Little Britain into a suit – being wheeled out to gurn, “How many new buses are we going to introduce?” And then Grant Shapps is putting his hand up and chirping, “Four thousand four hundred!”
“Four thousand four hundred!” gibbers Johnson. “Four thousand four hundred beautiful bouncing buses …”
Jesus Christ, Cummings – is this the best of the best? Just turn in your wings and give the Commies the keys to the west.
Or to put it another way: I’m afraid Johnson’s much-vaunted reshuffle this week merely served as a reminder that the only positive discrimination scheme in this country that has long functioned to the highest level is the one that puts idiots in the cabinet. By this metric, the loss of Andrea Leadsom is a blow, but one that’s more than made up for by the promotion of the likes of Oliver Dowden, Alok Sharma, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Suella Braverman. Braverman in particular is mesmerically dim, with the new attorney general’s latest Channel 4 News interview suggesting not only that she could be outperformed at the dispatch box but that she could be outperformed by the dispatch box. Or indeed any other item of furniture in the Palace of Westminster.
In a completely unforced error, then, Johnson has shown weakness just when he should be at his strongest. So it’ll be interesting to see what he shows when he’s weakened – there aren’t really a whole lot of places to go when your power move was to give some of this lot a run-out. Certainly not within the animal kingdom. Potential vegetable or mineral appointments I can’t speak for.
Still, it’s always nice to see the prime minister allowed down from the attic to do a bit of prime ministering. As befits a man who spends more time with some of his catchphrases than with some of his kids, Johnson began by leading the cabinet in a pantomime call-and-response exercise to which they dutifully submitted. “How many hospitals are we going to build?” asked the prime minister. “Forty!” lied the cabinet in unison.
“How many more police officers are we recruiting?” “Twenty thousand!”
“How many more nurses are we recruiting?” “Fifty thousand!” And so on.
Other lowlights of the reshuffle included the return of Zac (now Lord) Goldsmith. Two months ago, Goldsmith was rejected by the apparently sainted voters at the general election. He is now a minister in three – THREE – separate government departments. But headline news was, of course, the departure of Sajid The Saj Javid, who walked out rather than obey the command to fire his advisers while Cummings watched pantingly behind an arras (I’m vaguely paraphrasing).
The chancellor has been replaced by Rishi Sunak, whose entire aesthetic is that of an Apprentice candidate who’s just drenched himself in Diesel’s Only The Brave, and is willing to tear up his fiscal rules for the chance for Johnson to own 50% of his business. The Treasury itself will be renamed Zenith, Velocit-E, or Team Eleventen.
Downing Street characterised its new working relationship with this chancellor as “hand in glove”, an analogy that appears to cast Mr Sunak as a glove. The question is whether he will be of the puppet variety or simply the latex prophylactic worn as Cummings begins his cavity search of the public finances.
As for Sunak, my immediate concern is that the world’s fifth largest economy is now in the hands of someone who went on the record to describe The Rise of Skywalker as “a great night out”. Let’s see that in action. In a tweet dated 20 December last year, Sunak posted a picture of himself and Javid at a cinema screening of The Rise of Skywalker, with the judgment: “Great night out with the boss #TheRiseofSkywalker.” That may turn out to have been the warning sign. We have now seen control of the public finances pass to an individual who not only tolerates space horses galloping across an actual star destroyer, or Chewbacca being given some kind of patronising lifetime achievement award, but actively rates that and other cinematic atrocities as part of “a great night out”. Sorry, but no.
From one tedious fandom to another, meanwhile, as the reshuffle drama merely adds another 37 volumes to the vast amount of Cummingslore being churned out every week by the Classic Subs to his Classic Dom. Barely 10 days ago, reports of Cummings’s waning influence were dismissed breathlessly by some insider or other with the words: “Whitehall is littered with the bodies of those who have underestimated Dom.”
And yet … is it really, babe? Whitehall is now littered with living secretaries of state such as Gavin Williamson, while Liz Truss – who’d lose a battle of wits with an emoji – is the longest serving cabinet minister. It’s not exactly Team of Rivals, is it?
Whether Cummings will ever walk even a tenth of his talk remains to be seen. For now, the overwhelming impression he gives is of one who came to cool-guy status at a somewhat belated stage in life. Or rather, what he imagines as cool-guy status. As such, he cannot wear his newfound cachet lightly. The prime minister’s most powerful aide forever seems to be stagily flaunting some clever book he’s reading, or sneering sub-par one-liners like, “I’ll see half of you next Friday”, or big-boy boss warnings, like, “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now.”
What can you say, other than: Oooooooh? Cummings always seems to be trying rather too hard with all this, in a way that reminds me of a hilarious Clive James essay on the status-obsessed romantic novelist Judith Krantz. “Mrs Krantz would probably hate to hear it said,” James observed, “but she gives the impression of having been included late among the exclusiveness she so admires. There is nothing wrong with gusto, but when easy familiarity is what you are trying to convey, gush is to be avoided.”
And so with Cummings and his late-gained sublebrity. When badass outsider is what you are trying to convey, insisting to everyone you’re a badass outsider is to be avoided. We must look forward to the day when Dominic decides to show not tell. But until then, it all remains somewhat embarrassing for everyone involved.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist