We all know who’s turning the tap on and off for the drip, drip, drip of the ‘Partygate’ scandal. It comes as no surprise to any of us that Dominic Cummings, after making his defiantly public departure from Downing Street, carrying that cardboard box (full of what, for heaven’s sake?), would eventually take his revenge. It was the famous French foreign minister, Talleyrand, who served his king, then Napoleon, then the new king, and who knew all about nefarious politicking, who said, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” That is not quite true. He actually said, “La revanche est un plat qui se mange froid”. In point of fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the universal language of diplomacy was French, so presumably, Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, would have had no need of an interpreter, when the two of them conferred over resetting the map of Europe after Napoleon’s downfall.
So, Cummings’s actions come as no surprise but the reasons perplex me. Pure revenge is too simplistic. Yes, of course he feels wronged and harbours deep resentment that his boss has let him down. Anger, frustration, outrage, even hatred, were probably bubbling away dangerously close to the surface. All this suppressed rage would be familiar to people who feel they have been unfairly treated and summarily dismissed. But presumably he is an intelligent man and surely, as he calmed down, he would have started putting things into perspective.
First, he broke the rules about Covid restrictions with his trip to Barnards Castle before “Partygate’. His explanation in that infamous press conference in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street (gosh, that garden will soon rival the Garden of Gethsemane for notoriety), still brings hoots of disbelief from political observers. Furthermore, one of his family accompanying him had already tested positive for Covid. People in glass houses and all that.
Secondly, as a Conservative ((I presume he is a Conservative, or why else would he serve a Conservative prime minister?), why would he want to oust their leader at a tricky time for him and plunge the party into turmoil and civil war with every chance of defeat in the next General Election? “Never speak ill of a Republican,” said Ronald Reagan, who was of course a Republican president. He knew as well as anybody that a party that is engaging in internecine warfare is basically unelectable. What is Cummings doing? Does he wish for a Labour government? Surely all his work behind the scenes in No. 10 was to obviate that possibility.
Thus it is difficult to discount the conclusion that he is so enraged that he cannot see the wood for the trees, that he is motivated by pure malice, that he is prepared to bring down the Prime Minister whatever the consequences. He reminds me of Iago. In Shakespeare’s play, the eponymous hero, Othello, a black general serving the city state of Venice, has passed over Iago – his loyal aide de camp - for promotion in favour of Cassio. Iago is furious and sets out to destroy his master’s reputation….and his peace of mind. He claims Othello has had sex with his wife, a spurious allegation. He cites professional jealousy of Cassio but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for this either. Scholars, commentators, directors, actors, theatre-goers down the centuries have tried to lay bare Iago’s hidden agenda. Most seem resigned to accepting the theory that he is consumed by ‘motiveless malignity’; in other words, he is just evil, irredeemably malicious and wicked.
But he is still human and we are fascinated by him. I have a theory, no more than an idea really, that power, which, as Othello’s tight-hand man, he possessed in abundance, has been taken away from him and he is pretty cross about it. So furious in fact that he wants nothing more than to bring down the man that granted him that power… and then abruptly took it away. Dominic Cummings clearly harbours similar bitterness.
Cummings had power, probably more than his unelected, unaccountable, unorthodox position warranted. By all accounts, he wielded it mightily, tempestuously, sometimes brutally. His role was rather enigmatically referred to as the prime minister’s ‘special advisor’; he had Boris’s ear and no doubt went his own way over matters in which the PM was not particularly interested. On his own admission, Boris is not a ‘details man’, so Cummings had a pretty free rein over much that was going on in No. 10. I am making no comment here about the Prime Minister’s leadership qualities, nor about his personal behaviour. My interest is solely piqued by Cummings and his behaviour.
With little or no check being placed on No. 10’s special advisor, Cummings obviously came to the point where he felt that he was indeed ‘special’. He was always there, in the background but very visible, dressed in tee shirt, jeans and trainers when everybody else was wearing a suit. Look at me, he seemed to be saying, I don’t even have to follow the dress code. The normal rules did not apply to him and he believed he was all-powerful, he was invincible. This is the nature of power. It is seductive, it is addictive, it fuels the ego…..and ultimately it is self-destructive.
“As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods,
They destroy us for their sport.” (King Lear)
During my years as a schoolmaster, I had a colleague whose avowed intent was to secure for himself a headship. Why, I asked him. His reply was illuminating. “Just imagine what fun it would be,” he said, “if you asked for something, or gave an instruction, or made a decision, and you were absolutely confident it would be carried out pretty well immediately.” In other words, it was the power that attracted him, not a burning desire to reform, to improve, to make a difference (though I accept that these worthy aspirations can be fulfilled at the same time).
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That was the observation of Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19thand early 20th century. He also added, “Great men are almost always bad men.” The great dictators, the autocratic despots, those who accrue absolute power, never give it away willingly and invariably meet a sticky end. Think Julius Caesar, Caligula, Richard III, Robespierre, Mussolini, Hitler, Ceausescu, Saddam, Gaddafi – none died in his bed. Yet the quest for power remains a powerful human impulse even if the greasy pole gets more and more slippery the higher the climb. Those that fall off look upwards and seethe with resentment and jealousy.
Perhaps Cummings believes that he is still wielding power, if only by proxy. If he succeeds in bringing the Prime Minister down – what then? Job done? Mission accomplished? It might of course all backfire on him. His behaviour as the instigator of a witch hunt might come under increasingly critical scrutiny. Mr Johnson might somehow wriggle off the hook. He’s done it before. Either Cummings sticks the knife into the back of his former boss or he cuts himself badly on the sharpened blade in the attempt. Iago was not even granted a ‘heroic’ death at the conclusion of the play. He was seized, manacled and faced the prospect of interrogation, torture and execution. He remained tight-lipped to the end. “From this time forth I will never speak word.” I can’t imagine Mr Cummings remaining silent, though perhaps he should.