Dominic Cummings is one of the least trusted voices in the UK, or he certainly was this time last year, when he was sat in the Rose Garden at Number 10, explaining his unorthodox methodology for eye tests. But we can be sure of one thing that came from his mouth yesterday, and that was the fact that he is not a genius. He did, however, display some extensive knowledge of advanced pranksterism.
Cummings’ revelation about his lack of genius came when he spoke about the lack of quality at the top of the Government, including the Prime Minister. Cummings talked himself down, saying he had never achieved anything great. An attempt at false modesty, perhaps. An attempt to lay out a qualified mea culpa, certainly. But in an attempt to damn those around him, Cummings revealed a real truth about his limits.
There is little doubt about his abilities as a disruptive strategist, although there are many about his ability as a PR man. His leaking of stories in dribs and drabs over the last fortnight has not been handled spectacularly well. It also left little in terms of surprise or revelation for his big day in front of the committee (and, more importantly, the cameras). 5/10. He ended on a mumbled ‘no’ (about whether the PM was competent) rather than a mic drop.
Cummings did, however, do two things spectacularly well. The first was obvious, and that was to sew discord. Tossing that imaginary grenade, like a character from The Office. Pulling out the pin and letting chaos reign was seen as his style (hyped by himself) inside Number 10.
But Cummings doesn’t simply create an explosion, he offers up the contract for the clean-up. In this case, both Raab and Sunak were spared his ire and were instead praised for their efforts. Whether a collaboration or simple mind games, this was a really effective way to ensure disharmony inside the cabinet. This may be sheer nihilism, as Cummings claims that he doesn’t want another job inside a future administration. But it showed a clear strategy, rather than simple mud-slinging.
The other thing that Cummings did well can only be described in terms of ‘pranksterism’, specifically second staging pranksterism. In brief, this refers to opening up an organisation for questions to which you then respond or laying bear traps for your quarry to fall in to. A case in point is the endless referring back to the possibilities to sack Matt Hancock. This means that the PM looks weak and culpable if he does now sack him, weak and uncaring if he does not. It is a no-win situation.
Second staging is a powerful tactic when used well. But it requires great skill to execute efficiently. It is something that political campaign pranksters such as the Yes Men have used to great effect. In their version, they set up a fake corporate happening or, even better, impersonate a real company executive and let their victims believe that is the extent of the tomfoolery. It is embarrassing, unseemly and requires an immediate statement, often with an apology attached.
Of course, dressing up as the Executive Chief Vice Under President of Directorships at Widgets Corp and giving an off-kilter speech is not the pay off. The pay off comes when the company rushes to disown that presentation, as planned. But, just as they recover from being flattened by a falling piano, then a truck full of anvils lands upon them. Cummings was last seen backing such a truck up to the rear entrance of Number 10.
Cummings’ twist is that the victims don’t know which barbs come with a second stage attached. They may answer one accusation with a denial, only to be shown the smoking gun in the weekend’s papers. They may even offer a denial for something that was simply a throw away remark.
Of course, in this case the pay-off is not in the hands of Cummings himself. It requires Parliamentarians and the media to act upon his earlier work. They have to spot the clues, join the dots and pull at the threads. That demands time, care and effort. Will those charged with carrying out his aims take up the challenge? We can only watch and wait.