A Conversation with Dominic Cummings
"I've got no interest in my own emotional state."
Dominic Cummings agreed to an interview with me for Substack. He had helped me with a charity event I had organised and I found him easy to talk to when we met.
What follows ,is an edited version of some of the conversation we had. I leave it to you, to make up your own minds about his role, Johnson, the government, “Partygate” and the current state of politics.
(SM is me. DC is him obvs)
*Any quotes from this should be attributed.
SM: Were you surprised about the Sue Gray report?
DC: Um…I mean, some of it's a bit brazen. The sort of ‘Well I stopped investigating the party in the flat because the police got involved.’ Yeah, but then the police didn't investigate it. So basically, once you've got all that the cops have, they've sort of just said ‘Fuck this. We're not going to get involved with the after -party on the night of the 13th.
SM: You mean the party in the Downing Street flat on November 13th 2020
DC: It was reported a few days after I'd gone, in the Metro weirdly. Somehow the story got out but because it was extreme lockdown. It got no coverage, the media was so happy that I'd gone, no one wanted to talk about it.
SM: This is Carrie’s party?
DC: Dozens of people downstairs could hear it, so all the police had to do was interview anyone to find out. You don't have a work meeting at the top of number 10 where the music is so loud that you can hear it in the fucking press office.
SM: Why aren’t people angrier? Why is nothing happening?
DC: The Tory party itself is quite rotten now and the sign of that is that they can’t think of anyone better than Boris who's clearly just completely shot. They collectively are saying, ‘if we get rid of him, we might get somebody worse.’
Says a lot about the state of the Tory party.
And they actually could!
Liz Truss would be even worse than Boris. She's about as close to properly crackers as anybody I've met in Parliament
SM: Do you ever feel bad that you helped him win the election?
DC: I don't know. I don't feel bad about it. Because I think, the reasoning at the time was pretty simple. It was: on the one hand, there's a lot of upsides to just staying out of this. The various people from Vote Leave, well, many of us were attracted to the idea of just staying out of it and letting the Tory party collapse.
SM: When was this?
DC: June 2019. But there were two basic problems. One was, if we didn't go in and sort it out, then first of all, Brexit wouldn't happen and there'll be some kind of second referendum, which we thought would be very bad for the country indeed. And secondly, Corbyn, who we also thought…it's one thing to stand back and let the horror of the Tory party blow up, it's another thing to let Corbyn take over.
So, we kind of reluctantly thought, the downside is we save the Tory party, but the upside is we can crush a second referendum. Kick Corbyn off the stage. And there's some sort of chance with Boris being lazy as he is, that we'll be able to set the country on a new path.
Hence me making various terrorist demands of him when he came around to the house, but even then, we thought there's a reasonable chance that this goes tits up.
DC: Carrie. We had worked with Boris during the referendum. Then, of course he was with Marina who was a stabilising force. She's intelligent. She was good at calming him down.
Carrie was obviously the opposite. She was sort of injecting more craziness into the whole situation.
Then what happened is that she basically supported us until 10 pm on election night, simply because she thought, as she put it to me in July. ‘He has no clue how to get through this. He doesn't have a clue how it all actually works.’
Figuring out what to do and then getting it through the system is obviously going to be very hard, especially for someone like him.
Carrie was supportive of Vote Leave from the day we came in. She personally called me and said ‘Please do this’. You can look back at these things with some hindsight and if we hadn't gotten here, then you'd have had that completely wrecked Parliament colliding with COVID in March 2020.
God only knows what would have happened. Possibly with Corbyn as prime minister. Even more people killed. Fuck knows what.
SM: You keep saying ‘we’ who do you mean?
DC: My team from Vote Leave.
SM: But what was going wrong?
DC: The way that the Tories went about it on every level was a total disaster. You know, starting the whole formal process before they even knew what the hell they were trying to do. Then using EU citizens as negotiating chips, which we'd said should never happen. And we should just pass unilateral legislation immediately to guarantee their rights.
They just fucked up ,all the way down. People kept saying ‘Why does everything have to be so aggressive?’ but it wasn't us that had driven the country crazy. The Tory party and Whitehall had spent three years cocking it up.
By Summer 2019, something’s gonna break, there’s no clean way of getting out of that situation. A second referendum will be very bad. Smashing through things the way that we did, had downsides but staggering on just unable to resolve the issue would have been a disaster as well.
SM: What did you think about a second referendum?
DC: Back in 2015, I floated the idea of having two referendums and said maybe the way to do this is, you have a referendum on the principle and then you negotiate a new deal. Then you have a second referendum on the actual deal. Everybody said ‘No way.’ The Prime Minister, the Tory party, the Labour Party, the official Remain campaign, the CBI.
I mean, everybody said ‘Absolutely not. One referendum, it's got to resolve this for a generation.’
And then you spend three years dicking around and then go ‘You know what? Fuck it we actually can't do this, because it's unsolvable. You shouldn't have voted like this.’
I think MPs would have got lynched, trying to step outside the M25.
SM: Do you still think it was right to leave Europe?
DC: I think in 10 -15 years’ time we might look back… A lot of people especially the centre left in London thought joining the Euro would be a success. Now we know we are best off out of it. When the Euro came under pressure it completely wrecked the Greek economy.
SM: That took the blinkers off for me.
DC: Well certain people who were on the Remain side won't forgive me for the referendum and a set of people will think well, it wouldn't be bad to have a second referendum, people are entitled to different opinions,
I think especially now, when you look at how history worked out and knowing that COVID was coming. It's very hard to make the case for saying, ‘Oh things would have been…’
At least, in the actual world that happened, we know that Whitehall was completely unprepared, we know that the whole thing was a complete shit- show. We know the original plan had to be ditched. And we know a bunch of us had to steer it, whilst dealing with him. Add on top of that, a non- functioning government with no parliamentary majority, yeah, Brexit unresolved.
I mean, my God, imagine how much worse the whole thing would be.
SM: Was there a time when you did get on with Johnson personally?
DC: Well, we are both really odd characters. I mean, I don't know. In the second half of 2019 he was just completely desperate. He knew that he had only been put in there because no one could think of anything else to do.
He sort of did as we told him and also at that point the girlfriend up in the flat wasn't causing chaos. She was basically saying, ‘Listen to what they say.’ So as far as anything can be with him, it was reasonably stable, chaotic for the country, but he was reasonably focused because he knew that he was not far from being booted out.
SM: So, you got on with him on the basis that he took your advice. And then he stopped?
DC: I mean, he trolleyed around a bit obviously but in terms of big things he mostly listened. But then as soon as he came back in January from his hols you could see immediately that the whole thing was going to be a disaster.
SM: That quickly?
DC: Yeah. Immediately after the election: the election happens. There's literally like five or so days and then basically Christmas. He’s sauntered off to Mauritius or not Mauritius, some sort of billionaire Island, whatever it's called.
And then back at the beginning of January, it was just already clear that things were very bad. She immediately was on at him about firing all of us which obviously is not a great way of starting a new government, knowing that the PM’s girlfriend/wife is saying “Fire everybody”.
SM: Perhaps not.
DC: But also, from the start we had completely different attitudes My attitude was, okay, we've won the election. We've got a supermajority. There's a whole load of fundamental problems, now is the chance. 2020 is the year to do the hard things: things like planning reform, which no one dares touch for decade after decade, because it's so politically difficult. Fuck that. Now it's time to do it. Ignore the press, just head down, focus on this.
SM: And he didn’t share this view?
DC: His attitude was I've done the hard thing, which was the election. Now it's time to enjoy myself. And so very quickly, there is this clash of basic ideas
SM: Because your thing is that you want this systemic change in almost every part of the way the state runs. Is that an exaggeration? You had been talking about planning for procurement, reforming the civil service, nuclear weapons, pandemics?
DC: Yeah, I've been banging away about it for years on my blog.
SM: Is that because you are all doom and gloom?
DC: Yes, some people would say that, but then the last couple years, I'm like ‘What did I say about pandemics?’ Now, we're all talking about nuclear war and Putin. So, I don't feel like it's doom and gloom. I feel like we should be thinking about all of this.
SM: People don’t want to face it?
DC: Yeah, particularly you know, like nukes, for example, where it's incredibly complicated. The timelines are very long. The budgets are huge. For any PM It's very tempting to continue the cycle of keep everything extremely secret and punt the bills off to the next poor sucker.
So then in 2019/ 2020, I would come along and start poking around trying to get all the real figures and was sitting down with the deep state to say open the books and they're like ‘Can I just tell the truth?’
SM: What do you mean by the ‘deep state’?
DC: I mean the set of officials who actually control the large part of how Whitehall works, so people like the Cabinet Secretary, those who run the intelligence services, certain crucial people in the Cabinet Office.
SM: Certain conspiracy theorists use it, don't they in America, so can you explain what you mean.
DC: I am talking about something entirely real. I'm not talking about any kind of conspiracy. What I'm trying to get at, is 20 to 30 key officials, people like the Permanent Secretary or the MOD or GCHQ. Or, you know, people like this. The head of personnel in the Cabinet office, these people who have a lot more power than basically any ministers apart from, nominally the Prime Minister.
By deep state, that's what I mean: major sort of people.
SM: I still want to know what you mean precisely. The people who stormed The Capitol talk about the deep state and I think they are talking about something else.
DC: Yeah, what exactly? I haven't really followed the phrase. I mean, I think to some extent Trump does use it as a conspiracy, that doesn't mean I think that.
But then to some extent, that's also true, right? In the sense that there were obviously a whole set of people, particularly around the intelligence community, who did hate Trump and would attempt to cause trouble. And I know people who were going to be appointed that were shut down, like scientists who were going to get jobs that were then frozen. The FBI, simply just refused to vet them for 18 months and so therefore no one could be put into these posts.
So, Trump obviously talks a whole load of shit but as a lot of the Russia stuff showed there actually was a conspiracy against Trump in parts of the system as well. So, it’s very confusing.
SM: Do you mean the kind of machinery of government then? I ask because it seems to me you pitted yourself not just against Johnson but against that machinery.
DC: To some extent, though the irony of the situation is that if you think of all the different players in in Westminster, you've got the political parties, you've got media, you've got Boris, you've got the Tory MPs. And you've got the deep state. The thing is the people who, we, the Vote Leave team, got on with best was the deep state because there was a kind of alliance in a lot of ways.
Us and Them, wanted to try and sort out some of these problems. So, for example, whether it's sort out the shitshow around nuclear weapons, procurement, bringing technology into number 10, there's a lot of people around who agreed with us about all of that.
The media presented us all the time as Vote Leave psychopaths, at war with everyone and everyone hated us, but that wasn't true.
Our relations with the Tory party were extremely bad. But our relations with the deep state were obviously variable, depending on exactly who you're talking about.
SM: When you say Vote Leave, you’re not you're not talking about Farage and Banks?
DC No. That's why there was the coup in January 2016. To try and get rid of me. Because essentially the kind of Bernard Jenkin people wanted to merge the whole thing together with Farage. I refused. If you do that, then all the whole thing just gets flushed down the toilet.
SM: How did you get on with Farage?
DC: He’d always said to me ‘I'm a general but I shouldn't be overall Commander. Everyone will have their role. I've got 15% maybe 20% of the country’s support and my job should be to mobilise them.’
But by July 2015 suddenly his attitude changed, and it was ‘I've got to run the whole thing.’ And I said ‘But you've said to me for the last five years, that's not the way we're doing it.’
He’s a bit like Boris you know, he has some communication gifts but he's also a total organisational shambles
SM: You’ve written a lot about the kind of people who go into politics, and you've been criticised for your attitudes to work /life balance, haven't you? And yet, you've also been promoting women around you.
DC: It’s not really contradictory.
SM: Well, some people would say it was because if you want people in the office 16 hours a day and you want this buzzy start up feel, how do people go home and put their kids to bed?
DC: Well in Number 10. It's big enough that there are different kinds of roles. And it's obviously big enough that you could have say, some young woman who's just had kids and only wants to work three days a week.
But my basic point is that if you’re in number 10, then there are huge responsibilities. And it's your job to be trying all the time for millions of people, a lot of whom have got fuck all and have very desperate lives. Your job is not to be thinking ‘Well, how do I have a nice life and get home for bath time?’
There has to be a core of people who are there, demented, working extremely hard, because that's the nature of it, this constant chaos.
SM: When you like put your call out for weirdos and misfits, people took it to mean you wanted people who would be totally dedicated to you.
DC: Partly but when you are trying to think outside …. I guess it was also a call to Whitehall and Westminster. It's a very narrow culture. It’s very similar people who did very similar degrees at very similar universities.
SM: Like the media.
DC: Yes, and my view was that that you need a lot of different kinds of people around. And I would very strongly argue, and I think the Covid Inquiry will show that that was a serious problem. It contributed to the group think and the lack of challenge.
I put out that blog in January 2020 and that became the foundation for recruiting and that did bring in some excellent women. So suddenly by summer, you had 29-year-old women sitting at the Cabinet table, saying to Matt Hancock ‘You just said that it's not growing exponentially and you're wrong. Here's the actual graph. Here's what's happening.’
Again, a lot of people didn't like what I had done, but I thought that this is now working as it should. You've got smart people who know what the fuck they're talking about, telling either ministers or senior civil servants who don't know exponential growth from a hole in the ground. ‘Here's the actual facts.’ So, I’ve radically improved how decisions are taken.
The advice to the Prime Minister, though he could still trolley around and fuck things up, obviously, which he did, was at least much better.
SM: Have you ever had therapy?
DC: Therapy? Why not? Well, because …. I've got no interest in my own emotional state.
SM: Why not?
DC: Never have been.
SM: But you're interested in other people's emotional states
DC: I've got no interest in my own emotional states. Or myself. I find my own emotional state the most boring subject I could think of.
SM: I mean, isn’t one of your gifts being able to interpret other people's emotions? I'm just surprised to hear you say that you're not interested in your own. It’s like denial to me but a lot of people in politics are like this.
DC: I think the mentality of a lot of people in politics is that they recruit people to a large extent based on ‘Can you stand up and speak?’. I noticed this a long time ago, with Boris and Gove, we’d all be exhausted, arriving somewhere and one of them will be speaking. And I would always think ‘My god, the idea of standing up and speaking is just completely horrific ‘
But it's fascinating how the exact opposite emotion is in them, they both love it and they're both energised whereas I would be driven to catatonic at the thought of it.
Then there are the kind of 1000 yards stares amongst the likes of Hancock and Truss.
Rolling news and social media has made that worse as well because it encourages more of the narcissists to get involved as a sort of low -grade alternative to being a celebrity.
SM: Do you have contact with people there still? Is Johnson staying?
DC Yes. As far as we know. I think obviously, the fact that Rishi blew himself up, makes it much more likely that he somehow survives.
Rishi? I don't want to say ‘no chance’, but I think he's out of it. They're gonna be thinking who can win the next election and whatever you might think of Michael Gove’s abilities, he is not a loved character.
There are some very junior ones who I like, who I won't curse, by naming ,because if I named them then everyone will hate them . But in the cabinet I mean, no its a Very, very, poor cabinet.
SM: And you said, you thought that Labour should be led by a woman from the north like Nandy?
DC: Yeah, because Starmer is pretty rubbish
SM: What about the trans stuff?
DC: It’s just stupid for them in lots of ways politically because the last thing we should be doing is giving a desperate Tory Party who have been a fiasco for years, a wedge to say at the next election, you can’t define a woman. Labour is stupid. They should just smash it back. The more they try to fudge it, the worse the problem gets.
You can see in universities that academics have so little moral courage, they herd together.
SM: You’re also not in the Tory party. Do you want to be in another party?
DC: Well, I'm not a sort of joiner by nature. I don't like parties. In general. I mean, ‘parties’ or parties. I don't like going to parties.
SM: Were there journalists at the parties?
DC: Well, Carrie is friends with a lot of them and it was persistently stated that they were hanging out with her and him. But obviously the police and Sue Gray decided not to investigate that or to investigate Chequers either.
SM: Were there parties at Chequers?
DC: So, people say, yeah.
SM: I mean, there are a lot of rumours about Carrie now.
DC: I don't know, and nothing would surprise me in any shape or form. I mean, she can't be happy with the situation now and obviously it’s all blowing up in her face.
Power attracts certain kinds of people, and it becomes sort of self -feeding.
Add, all of his money stuff as well.
SM: Did he talk about all this with you?
DC: Yeah, I mean, that was an important part of the whole disaster on COVID because he was literally in the process of trying to finalise his divorce. He was broke. He was having to find money to pay Marina, and at the same time, he had Carrie doing this insane renovation of the flat with Lulu running up these huge bills.
He jumped into conversations with me in January where he would say ‘You’ve got to help me get money to pay for this stuff. She’s upstairs, she has spent £100,000. All this gold wallpaper and stuff. And I'm fucked with my divorce. I can't pay for it’. So, I say ‘Well, go to Coutts. Get one of your rich friends to take out a loan’
‘No fuck that. I want to get donations in to do it. But obviously it's bad PR so I have to keep it quiet’. I said ‘That's illegal. What the fuck are you talking about? You idiots. The Prime Minister can't get secret donations.’
At the time, we were dealing with this whole Huawei thing. I said ‘Well, we deal with Huawei and are having meetings with GCHQ about what to do. Yeah, imagine if Huawei gave you 500,000 quid to pay for the gold wallpaper and it was kept secret. Everyone would say that's bribery. Instantly removed. Like, are you out of your mind? You must be able to realise this.’
But his mindset was very much ‘Fuck that. I'm gonna do what I want’
SM: Quite amazing, isn't it?
DC: Yeah. It was already clear that this was all heading to disaster, but he's always had that idea. Always famously turns up at places and then just leaves and let's everyone else pay the bill.
SM: Do you know the rest of the family?
DC: The father was an appalling cunt.
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SM: What do you do for fun?
DC: Well, for the last few years all I do …. I had a child three months before the referendum. So, either I've been doing the referendum and then number 10 . Or I've just been hanging out here reading and playing with him. That's about it.
SM: Do you like music? Do you like film? Do you watch telly?
DC: A bit? I watch telly. I used to watch a lot of movies. Not much really. I just hang around, read, go for walks.
SM: Do you like cooking?
DC: Not really.
SM: I know you like Russian literature . Do you speak Russian?
DC: No. I mean, I could speak basic Russian, when I lived there 20 years ago.
SM: Must have been a fascinating time to live there. I see you have Peter Pomerantsev’s book here (Nothing is True and Everything is Possible). It’s so good, isn’t it?
DC: Yeah, Russia is such a fucked-up place. It was one of the few books I've read, that I thought that captures the weirdness of it, just how bad it is. It’s not Europe. It's a dark place. I mean, there's some wonderful people, amazing people there, some of the best educated people in the world you will ever, ever meet in your life.
SM: Is anything happening on this Lebedev stuff, by the way? I mean, giving him the peerage and then refusing to disclose anything about it.
DC: I suspect that they'll just keep all that quiet until Boris goes and then possibly something I mean, unless the deep state people decide to leak it, which they might do.
SM: Did you know about that? Which part of it?
DC: Yeah. I can’t remember when he got the peerage formally, but I was there when the decision was made. I was in the room when other people said, ‘Prime Minister You shouldn't do this.’ And I said to him ‘You shouldn't do this. ‘
One of the many, many battles after the election, I didn't win.
SM: He always thinks he can get away with it? And now?
DC: You never know. He goes through those funny moods. I suspect he's thinking if they don't put him out before August, he's got a reasonable chance of swinging the election. And he'll be thinking ‘Oh, I'm still there. I was close to disaster but just escaped’. Also, he will be looking at Starmer and rightly thinking ‘He’s rubbish’.
But remember, he doesn't really want to be there very long. All he wants to do is, not be a loser and not be put out in disgrace.
You can see, he's not actually interested in the job.
Even in January 2020 he was saying to me ‘God, you know, these people who say they want to do this job and go on and on? Well I want to write my Shakespeare book.’
This is dangerous. This is like four weeks after the election.
The election was the 12th of December. By mid- Jan he's basically whinging about what a difficult job it is.
I said ‘You are Prime Minister and if you want to sit upstairs in the morning and do a bit of writing you know, that's up to you but I wouldn't run around the building telling everyone that you are finding the job boring. Otherwise, you might find it hard to get people to do what you want’
SM: He must have trusted you to tell you this.
DC: He’s very odd. He does kind of do oversharing but also at the same time never trusting anybody, right? Also, part of the oversharing is to see what then turns up in the newspapers to see if you're leaking.
SM : You’ve been accused of leaking.
DC: I have been accused of all sorts. I mean, I don't have any sort of personal relationship with someone like Laura Kuenssberg. It was just a professional relationship. And it was important particularly when COVID kicked off. For example, the Mail started to report things like tanks on the streets, rumours that London is going to be locked down and people won't be allowed to leave. There were things like that, where she would call me and I would just be able to say to her, I guarantee you that is not true. The BBC is the national broadcaster. Do not put that on the news because otherwise you'll cause chaos.
It's the Prime Minister, the BBC political editor who's going to have a relationship with the Prime Minister's main political adviser. I mean, that's just a fact of life. And to think I have had been criticised for that. It's just crazy.
SM: I don't know. I mean, I just find it all really strange.
DC: They felt this is all ‘Dom’s dark web.’ Johnson thought ‘He wants to cut me and my friends off from dealing with the media, right so that everything goes through his secret network’.
SM: Okay, what's your secret network?
DC: The irony was in 2020, I was barely speaking to the press, but he never believed it. Okay. I stopped with the press in November before the election, I told you. I talked to Laura, sometimes Peston, that's about it. I would tell Lee (Cain) what was happening.
Like the crucial day of Thursday, the 12th of March was the most insane day of the whole thing, and probably one of the most, if not the most insane day in number 10 since 1945. The day started with me, trying to bounce the system towards much more radical action much earlier. Trump then tried to get - which was never revealed at the time until I'd mentioned to the MPs last year - Trump trying to get us to engage with this bombing mission and to fly over and bomb a load of people in the Middle East.
SM: Bomb who?
DC: I can't say who but okay, mostly people in Iraq. So, I go into him to say, ‘Listen, this idea of us cancelling all these COVID meetings because we're going to start bombing the Middle East with Trump, it's fucking crackers. Like we're gonna have 1000s of people dead here in the next few weeks. And various people want us to start bombing the fucking Middle East. They are out of their minds.
We've got sort out COVID’.
He goes ‘This fucking Times story about Dylan, the dog is shitting all over the flat, I want a fucking inquiry. I want to know who briefed it. Carrie thinks it's you.’
‘Like, what story? This is totally batshit.’ He says ‘There’s a story in The Times that says the whole place is chaos. And me and Carrie are living like students with Dylan shitting everywhere and the staff, the cleaners are all going mad’
We've got meetings on bombing. We've got meetings on COVID. Everything is going down the fucking toilet. But that gives you a sign of where his brain is. He's looking at his phone getting texts from her about ‘Have you started the inquiry into the Dylan leak?’
That's what we're dealing with.
SM: This is terrifying And yet you think that he's basically okay with this Sue Gray thing? It will build up surely.
DC: I don’t think he's out of the woods. He's in very sticky territory still.
SM: It feels like no one is in charge
DC: It definitely has a feel of the institutions are all kind of crumbling
SM :Is this what you wanted ? This disruption? It is why a lot of people are interested in you.
DC: That's true, too. There are a lot of people who think that. It's partly why a lot of people voted for Brexit. It's partly why a lot of people were happy at the thought of the Vote Leave guys going into Number 10. Because they thought rightly, well, they are going to shake that shit up and things are going to be very different.
People like me, say, all these things are rotten. They say ,we were gonna cause chaos. Their view was, well, you people are all basically sort of mad anarchists. Now, our view would be look at what happened with COVID like our fears were basically vindicated, right?
The whole fucking thing did fall apart like a deck of cards. And from our point of view, it vindicates our basic idea that we should do Brexit.
But that's the kind of start, you then have to kind of go through these institutions and they need to be ripped up and rebooted in all sorts of ways. It needs new people coming in, new ideas. It needs new incentives. Or we just keep going with the closed shop of the old lobby, the old parties, the old boys club in Whitehall, then we're going to get the same old results which is a shitshow: stagnant economy, terrible public services, no fucking A and E, it’s totally imploded in large parts of the country. Unless some force actually starts to rejuvenate these things then…
SM: What do you think of people who don’t vote?
DC: For most people, I think ‘It's just what's the point? They're all bunch of wankers’