See Lee out back about the merch, there’s grenade keyrings and everything
“As I put on my blog…” He was back! The maverick master of mystery! The king of the psephological swingers! Dominic Cummings, the man who is definitely cleverer than you, had come to parliament to tell us how we were getting it all wrong.
And getting it all wrong we definitely were. Had he been fired? Ridiculous! He’d always planned to leave in a blazing row at the end of the year. Had he taken a 40% pay rise? Nonsense! He’d taken a pay cut. And then a pay rise, but that wasn’t the point. You’re too stupid to understand the point, or even that there is a point. You idiots.
He was before the Science and Technology Committee, a low-key comeback gig at a backstreet venue, appropriate for a great artist who wants to get away from the stadiums and reconnect with his real fans. But he promised that bigger things were on the way, with a spot before what is very much the Main Stage at the Parliament’s Glastonbury, the joint inquiry into Covid. Time was when committees struggled even to get Dom to answer their letters, and now he’s appearing before two in the space of a couple of months. It’s probably just while he’s waiting for Elon Musk to return his calls.
Still, fans who were hoping for the greatest hits were in for a disappointment. There were none of the favourites that made him a household name. No Barnard Castle Eye Test, no Take Back Control, not a single Questionable Bus.
The thing about Dom is that, while Brexit may have made him famous, and taking Covid to Durham turned him into a household name, they were never really his passion. Those were projects that the label pushed on him. For Dom, it’s always really been all about the Advanced Research.
So this was an acoustic set of very personal numbers, in which we learned that when Boris Johnson visited his home just before becoming prime minister to beg him to join the team, Dom had four conditions. The first was that Johnson had to be “deadly serious” about Brexit. It’s revealing that Cummings felt he needed to check this in summer 2019, but then, he’d dealt with Johnson before. Next, Johnson had to promise extra science funding, and the creation of an advanced research agency. Finally, he had to give Dom the power to reconfigure Whitehall. All of which one can imagine Johnson agreeing to with a bemused shrug.
Dom has personally contributed by leaving problems all over the country for scientists, and indeed the rest of us, to find
Dom takes science so seriously that he’d put a shirt on. His basic theory is that governments are useless at funding innovation, because they keep asking questions like “what’s the idea, then?” and “but will this work?” If it were up to Dom, we’d just hand cash to scientists and get out of the way. The right scientists, obviously, not the wrong ones. He’s not an idiot.
You probably are an idiot, of course, because you’re probably wondering something like “how will we spot the right scientists?” This is such a stupid question that it’s really beneath Dom to answer it. But the solution is to have an agency handing out money. There are agencies doing that now, of course, but they’re bad agencies, stuffed with “horrific bureaucracy”. Dom’s agency would be a good agency, staffed by the right people, who would get it right. It was important, he explained that they weren’t the wrong people, because they would get it wrong. If you want to know how you spot the right people, there’s really no point in talking to you. Idiot.
Most of the projects the agency would fund wouldn’t work, of course. “It’s baseball,” he explained, sort of. “If you’re batting 300, then that’s fantastic.” And if you don’t know what that means, then you’re an idiot.
On he went. “Problem-finding is as important, sometimes more important than problem solving.” Dom has personally contributed by leaving problems all over the country for scientists, and indeed the rest of us, to find.
It’s easy to see why Cummings has been so successful. He’s softly spoken, and apparently modest: these ideas aren’t his ideas, he insists, and he couldn’t possibly run such an agency himself. And it all seems so reasonable. Surely we are all in favour of doing good things well, rather than bad things badly?
But there were flashes of immodesty. He didn’t demur when the committee chairman, Greg Clark, suggested he had been the second most powerful man in the government.
And there were the moments of vengeance. Early on, he referred in passing to “the disaster of last year”. This is at one level uncontroversial, but at the same time very much not how the government describes 2020. He came back to the point. The disaster, to be clear, wasn’t in the bits that Dom was overseeing, although you might have been under the impression that he was overseeing all of the bits. No, the disaster was in Matt Hancock’s bits. Poor Matt Hancock. His department was variously “just a complete disaster”, “an absolute total disaster” and “just a smoking ruin”.
What’s that you say? The vaccine? No, the vaccine only worked because of Dom. “We had to take vaccine process out of the department.” In fact, it’s funny you should mention the vaccine, because it is, in some way, proof that Dom is right. Things that went badly also prove this, interestingly. “2020 was proof that if you don’t have people with scientific backgrounds who are able to think quantitatively and rationally, then you will have disastrous outcomes,” he said. He says this kind of thing a lot, and it’s impossible to know which camp he puts himself, with his history degree, into.
On his own departure, with his work on Whitehall and science half-done, he insisted it was all as planned. “The whole thing isn’t exactly as it appeared,” he said.
And then his time was up and he left. I picture him, as I always do, pulling the pin from an imaginary hand grenade and tossing it behind him. Take that, idiots.
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