Artillery Row

The Cummings I knew

Did Dominic Cummings learn his management style from Klute Nightclub in Durham?

Klute Nightclub in Durham was voted second worst in Europe in FHM Magazine (the worst in Belgrade subsequently burned down) and was famed for its terrible music (80’s ballads and glam rock were particularly popular), sticky carpets, and the predominant cause of said stickiness, the “quaddie vodie”: four shots of vodka served in separately in shot glasses, with an alcopop and an empty pint glass and a straw, the contents of which would be combined by the students into the pint glass to get around licensing laws. The Club was owned and run by Cummings’ Uncle Phil and Cummings himself would become a Director in 2010.

In many ways, it was a typical student nightclub. We would pile in twice a week or more and it would be filled with students in fancy dress, groups on college socials and pals from different courses. You would see shameless public displays of affection on the dance floor, hear the rowdy singing of songs by various sports teams on a Wednesday after British Universities Sport’s Association (BUSA) matches and smell the heady mix of sugary alcohol, sweat and synthetic aftershave. Some would be worse for wear; others would be being ill; some might be upset; others might be confrontational; but in general, it was a lot of young people having the time of their lives. It’s a scene repeated in student towns up and down the country. There was everything but also nothing to see here.

Tuned in to the apparatus of the Club, and constantly barking orders, everything else appeared to him a distraction: music; lighting; human beings

Of course, memories of some of those nights are now rather different because the bloke that would pop in periodically and order everyone about, and occasionally be sat in the VIP area with pals, wasn’t who I had taken him to be. During the period from late 2004 to early 2007, Cummings spent his time in a “bunker” his father had built for him on their Lodge House farm on the outskirts of Durham – apparently reading science and history and “trying to understand the world” – and overseeing what was happening at Klute. Although in his mid-thirties and having already run the North East Says No (NESNO) campaign against a Regional Assembly, as well as having worked for Iain Duncan-Smith and set up the New Frontiers Foundation think-tank, in these his ‘years in the wilderness’, Cummings was the mastermind behind our student nightclub. 

Cummings’ approach to work at Klute was something to see and, if not out of the ordinary, certainly out of kilter. While people were in good spirits, including his uncle Phil, and the manager, Andy, and other staff, who would chat to students and have the odd drink, Cummings certainly wasn’t. Hyper-focussed and marshalling the goings-on at the entrance and the bar, Cummings cut a figure completely detached from the atmosphere and environment around him. Tuned in to the apparatus of the Club, and constantly barking orders, everything else appeared to him a distraction: music; lighting; human beings. Cummings was there to run a business, had no time for courtesy or pleasantries and wouldn’t so much feign an interest in the people that were there.

He wasn’t a bouncer but people were more afraid of him than the bouncers

Cummings’ manner was as off-putting as it was intense and it almost sobered you up, a bit like when you automatically reduce your speed on seeing a police car. Talking to him was unnerving because he was impossible to read and so felt unpredictable, the sort of person you have no idea if they are just shy or if you’ve upset them in some way and they’re thinking of how to get you back for it. “What do you want?”, he would ask students ordering at the bar. No expression, this was a transaction. I do remember him breaking a smile once though when he found out that my name was the same as that of the late Chairman of Newcastle Football Club. Of course, the joke wasn’t shared but he called me ‘Chairman’ from then on anyway. It was amusing to him and you certainly wouldn’t pick him up on it. Indeed, although Cummings wasn’t a bouncer – as has been reported from when he took money on the door in his youth – people were more afraid of him than them anyway. I was 6ft 4in, in the university rugby team and capable of holding my own but tried to steer clear.

Klute and Number 10 aren’t very similar places, and to say that his approach to work there might have been the same as that which ended his job at Number 10 would be going a bit far. That said, if his hyper-focused management style and lack of conscientiousness made us feel uncomfortable after a skinful at 3am in the good-time work environment of Klute nightclub, working with him at the seat of Government during your 9-5 can’t have been easy.

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