Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Since his immortalisation in James Graham’s epic drama, Brexit: the uncivil war, Dominic Cummings has become something of a political celebrity. When the Prime Minister included him in his appointment of a new cohort of Special Advisers, eyebrows were raised and outrage ensued. Cummings had become something of a malcontent – a political disrupter – unsuited for the halls of Number 10.
From his choice of clothes to his overtly anti-establishment ideologies, Cummings’s whole persona has, over the past few months, been extensively deconstructed by the political media. If I had a pound for the number of times I have seen comparisons between Cummings and Machiavelli, I would be a rich woman. I hold my hands up, I fell into this trap too, arguing my case for Cummings’s status as the evil genius of politics and sneering at his evidently pointed choice of attire.
But we should be careful before we indulge in this contrived way of critiquing the Prime Minister’s closest adviser. After all, Cummings is a real, ostensible political actor, not – as so many have described him – some sort of twisted sociopath come Bond villain. By trivialising Cummings, we allow him to get away with his quite frankly appalling behaviour. In constantly attempting to draw parallels between Cummings and people of note, there is a danger of falling down the rabbit hole of complacency – engineering a fiction without facing up to the reality of Cummings’s intentions.
Cummings is not Machiavelli, nor is he an evil genius. His motives are quite clear: to disrupt the current consensus among the British political class, not to take over the world, and not to gain power for himself. In moulding him into a caricature of political malevolence, Cummings is inadvertently let off – allowed to behave in a manner which is evidently unacceptable.
This method of trivialising political figures is nothing new. The same can be said of our current Prime Minister. Comparisons between Johnson and President Trump have been thrown around to the extent that the latter premier even got in on the act. Trump could be seen proudly exclaiming that Johnson is “Britain’s Trump”. Comparisons such as these foster a sense of complacency. Characterising Johnson as something of a mini-Trump leaves room for of condonation of his behaviour – he becomes a parody of someone else, a laughing stock – his actions are merely emulations of Trump’s.
Regardless, despite the continual comparisons between the two leaders, Johnson also has something of a personality of his own. His is that of the bumbling buffoon – suspended above London – decked out in an unflattering harness, gleefully waving the British flag.
Johnson’s mayoral persona was jumped upon, glorified as a refreshingly different politician, more fun and laid back than his Eton contemporaries. I can remember the bravado and admiration felt by so many of my peers towards the flamboyant, somewhat foolish Mayor of London. But we weren’t laughing at Johnson, we were laughing with him.
So normalised is this identity, that our current Prime Minister is often referred to by his first name. The casual use of Boris sees Johnson given a personable status. No longer is he the powerful and calculating politician, but rather, the highest statesman in the country becomes the eccentric next-door neighbour. Where is the accountability in that?
The development of such a well-crafted public guise was a calculated effort on his part. Johnson was able to break onto the monochrome stage of British politics in bright technicolour, taking the British public with him. In mocking and dismissing his many ignominies, Johnson was allowed to get away with too much. Prime examples of this are the ridiculously ostentatious, miscalculated and costly projects undertaken by Johnson during his stint as London Mayor. Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister, The Guardian released a video looking into each one of these “vanity projects”, which ultimately cost the British taxpayer £940 million. No matter how exuberant and unrealistic these projects were (see the immaterial Garden Bridge), Johnson’s reputation as a refreshing and interesting political machine remained firmly intact.
Just as with his right-hand-man, the trivialisation of Johnson has allowed him to get away with such shoddy leadership and decision-making, so much so that he now sits as our Prime Minister. The mocking of political figures works well when it is executed as a supplement to an overall critique of their motives and actions. But it is when these comparisons, gimmicks and jokes become the pervading narrative that succinct and lucid criticism begins to slip through the cracks.