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Dominic Cummings is the perfect totem for rightwing populism. You can see it in his careful cultivation of outsider status, from his theatrical bickering with the press pack camped outside his home (he pretends to find it all slightly irritating, but you can tell he’s really enjoying it), to his final exit from the front door of No 10, which was as dramatic as it was contrived. Likewise, his choice of casual attire suggests that he is a man who supposedly does not care what the world thinks of him, although the fact that one of Cummings’ previous blogs was edited in mid-April to make it look as though he predicted the pandemic tells us otherwise.
That Cummings has never joined a political party, and privately believes the Tories are too wedded to the establishment, helps him cling on to this outsider status. But as the willing servant of an Old Etonian Conservative prime minister who sought power for its own sake, Cummings’ career in government tells a rather different story. While he expressed contempt for the British media ecosystem, he fed tasty morsels to favoured journalists who haplessly danced to his tune. When he declared that the public were right to believe that “Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people”, he wanted the world to know he was different. But as the second most powerful figure in a government whose mismanagement of the pandemic has had a terrible consequences for the lives of the poor, he was not.
Rightwing populism, you see, craves the trappings of rebellion, insurgency and a hatred of elites. But as a variant of rightwing ideology, it stands opposed to any fundamental redistribution of power and wealth. So its pretensions are just that: a blend of unconscious self-deception and knowing dishonesty. While a passionate desire to bring down the system often does underpin leftist aspirations, that “system” is clearly defined by the left as the concentration of wealth and power that drives inequality and subverts democracy. For Cummings, the “system” was essentially a civil service he desired to bring to heel. But this aspiration was always more of a cliche than a serious objective. Conservative governments have often pursued civil service reform, yet in practice this mantra swiftly collides with complicated realities.
For rightwing populists, “elites” have to be redefined: not financiers bankrolling the governing party, or hedge fund managers with offshore accounts, but rather public figures or academics who hold socially progressive values. That these figures wield next to no political power and are under siege in a society dominated by rightwing press outlets is irrelevant: call anything you don’t like the “elite”, and you can call yourself a rebel.
Which brings us to the revelations that so many public contracts happened to end up with friends and associates of Johnson’s fallen spin doctor. It’s been uncovered, for instance, that Public First – an obscure research company – was handed a government contract worth more than £500m of taxpayers’ money last year. As the not-for-profit campaign group the Good Law Project – which is pursuing a judicial review – put it, this was with “no formal contract, prior advertisement, or competitive tender process”. The directors and owners of the company have close connections with Cummings. The Good Law project has argued that “money for your mates, on a handshake, formalised later, is unlawful”.
Meanwhile, court documents suggest straightforward cronyism: one senior official described Public First as Cummings’ “mates”, “hence they got all our work with no contract”. Cummings denies bringing in Public First “because they were my friends”, but says it was rather because the company was “very good”. Whether these answers satisfactorily lower anyone’s eyebrows is questionable, to put it mildly.
Stop people at random on the street (though keep your social distance), and you will quickly find that one of the most popular objections to elites is that they look after their own. Even from a utilitarian perspective, awarding contracts based on personal associations rather than on merit is hardly conducive to good governance. The fraudulent nature of rightwing populism is that it relies on stirring popular passions against fictitious elites. But rather than confronting structural inequalities, it merely reinforces them.
This was the story of Donald Trump, a plutocrat with a history of exploiting workers. Trump pledged to “drain the swamp”, but he was far more toxic and corrupt than even the oligarchical power structures that dominate the American republic. He undoubtedly believes the image he conjures up about himself, and so does Cummings: an outsider, a master of the dark arts, relishing his evil genius, sticking it to the elites, not playing by the rules, not caring who he upsets along the way. But the truth is less dramatic. Cummings was another rightwing government insider. He was just a bit ruder and more pretentious than his peers.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Cummings a Tory rebel? The Covid cronyism shows he’s just another insider | Dominic Cummings