Former PM adviser Dominic Cummings (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Cometh the hour, Cummings the man?

If Dominic Cummings starts his own party, we should pay attention

Artillery Row

Is Dominic Cummings about to set up a new political party? He wrote on his blog on 29 September, “I’ve been in America on the next phase of regime change, very interesting.” The last time a new party made any significant headway in an election was Labour in 1906. So perhaps it is no surprise that Dominic Cummings’ talk of a new political party is currently flying under the radar. New parties don’t get taken very seriously — nor does Cummings. He said recently of Liz Truss, “the longer she stays the higher the chance of replacing them with a startup party”. So perhaps recent events have slowed down any initiative.

A new party could take advantage of the state of Westminster

With the recent turmoil in the polls and the prospect of voters changing their allegiances again at the next election, the Tories are starting to resemble the Liberals in 1906. Their majority might be an illusion waiting to be shattered by a new force more attuned to the Zeitgeist. Cummings first mentioned the fact that a new party could take advantage of the state of Westminster in his interview with Laura Kuenssberg last year. More recently, as the Tory turmoil unfolded, he has dropped references to it in his tweets. In one particularly provocative tweet he wrote:

Lots of spads texting Vote Leave “can we get a job in your new startup party when we collapse?”

Some of you yes, those of you attacking science funding you will be hung from no10 lamposts … 

Despite his telling Kuenssberg he wouldn’t, Cummings is precisely the right person to run such a party. (Remember, he had to be asked to join the referendum campaign.) He understands that voters are both right and left wing, holding a mingle of opinions rather than conforming to ideological ideas. He is a campaign innovator, and he has a strong sense that something is rotten in the state and needs to be changed. So it’s worth asking, what might a new party, run by Dominic Cummings, look like?

The first thing to consider is that Cummings is not right or left. He is what the economist Tyler Cowen would call a state capacity libertarian. An approximate definition of state capacity libertarianism is that a strong state is distinct from an overbearing state. High levels of state capacity (the ability to get things done) are not inherently tyrannical. Sometimes the problem is too much government, sometimes the problem is not enough government. Most often, the problem is the wrong sort of government.

Cummings is very focussed on the idea of the wrong sort of government. As he said, “in a world increasingly defined by information and computation the winning asset is not size — it is institutional adaptability.” Hence his strong views on science funding. He knows that growth relies on investment and innovation. Commenting on the mini-budget he suggested Truss might try to “slash capital spending on R&D and generally vandalise the future as Osborne did!” For Cummings, the problem is the Whitehall mindset

Yes, there are already discussions on this in No10/11/HMT/Cabinet Office — and of course the many enemies of science spending to be found among the PPE 30-somethings in HMT will try to kill the most high value things (which are also those least susceptible to HMT accounting).

There is, he says, a mismatch between the growth of technology and the ability of elites and institutions to cope with those changes. Cummings believes, “Few in SW1 take basic science research seriously.” Vote Leave advocated making it easier for scientists to enter the country. He wants to reduce the bureaucracy around science funding. He wants nuclear power to help level up the north of England. These are serious policies, and you’ll be hard pressed to find much serious thinking on them anywhere else. 

Expect a party built around modern ideas of quantitative modelling

It has long been his refrain that PPE produces bluffers and doesn’t properly equip people for government in the modern age. Training for modern politics, he holds, needs to be more quantitative. Cummings is so convinced of this he taught himself A-level maths whilst working as a SpAd at the Department of Education. As he has said many times, he won the Brexit referendum by hiring physicists and listening to them. Despite this, he knows that building a team is the most important thing — maths alone is insufficient. So expect a party built around modern ideas of quantitative modelling and managed with the intensity and energy more familiar to start-ups than politics. 

It is this that gives him his non-ideological view of politics. Look at what he said about voters in the referendum:

About 80 per cent of the country including almost all swing voters agreed with UKIP that immigration was out of control and something like an Australian points system was a good idea. This was true across party lines … Most UKIP and Tory voters (rather than MPs/insiders) agreed with us on the NHS and executive pay whilst also agreeing with us on the need to take back control of immigration policy from a system that has obviously failed. Our campaign was neither Left nor Right in the eyes of the crucial audience.

This is neither a Tory replacement party nor is it populism. Cummings might be the biggest democrat in modern politics. He will design an agenda that responds to voters’ major concerns, however ideologically disparate they are, whilst simultaneously working to revolutionise the way talent is selected, deployed and managed in the state. Think of Gladstone’s reforms to the civil service entrance exams as a rough analogy with Cummings’ view of the government. He did this with education: his work was criticised and dismissed, but it is claimed that two million additional children are in good or outstanding schools since the academy revolution. 

The overall system, Cummings believes, is incapable of learning. He predicted that “even after a disaster as big as covid, our political parties and permanent bureaucracies will prioritise business as usual over learning, even when many great officials want to learn — the system’s culture and incentives defeat them”. And of course, that has been largely true. So expect a party that focuses on reforming those aspects of Westminster. 

It’s worth taking this seriously, because Cummings is a late bloomer who has always been underrated. In his twenties he lived in Russia, opened a failed airline and made an attempt to become a barrister. His first political work was at twenty-eight, and he flicked between roles, often as an outsider able to see things differently. Aged thirty-three he went back to his parents’ farm where he built a bunker: for nearly three years he read science and history, trying to understand the world. Then he worked for Gove, routinely dismissed as a crank, a psychopath and all the rest. Then, much to his critics’ surprise, he won the referendum. He gives much credit to his colleagues, but Vote Leave was a start-up and he was the founder.

The broader lessons of Vote Leave have been ignored by conventional politics. Cummings’ new party will be an attempt to see those lessons learned.

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