Recently I was arranging a charity auction for JK Rowling’s Lumos Foundation and I cheekily asked Dominic Cummings to contribute. I have never met him and did not expect an answer. But he said that I could auction an hour of “Ranting about Brexit at Cummings”. He needed no details, just reassurance that I would not be spending the money on weapons. I then asked to interview him — and he agreed.
We talked about everything, from Partygate and his relationship with Boris Johnson, to the deep state and whether he needs a therapist. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Were you surprised by the Sue Gray report?
Some of it is a bit brazen: where she says she stopped investigating the party in the flat because the police got involved — even though the police didn’t then investigate it. So basically, they have sort of just said: “Fuck this. We’re not going to get involved with the after-party on the night of 13th.”
You mean the party in the Downing Street flat on 13th November 2020?
It was reported a few days after I’d gone, in Metro weirdly. Somehow the story got out but because we were in extreme lockdown it got no coverage. The media was so happy that I’d gone, no one wanted to talk about it.
Dozens of people downstairs could hear it, so all the police had to do was interview any one of them 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.
Why aren’t people angrier? Why is nothing happening?
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 are collectively saying, “if we get rid of him, we might get somebody worse”. It says a lot about the state of the Tory party. And they actually could get somebody worse: Liz Truss would be even worse than Boris. She’s about as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in Parliament.
Do you ever feel bad that you helped him win the election?
I don’t know. I don’t feel bad about it. Because I think the reasoning at the time was pretty simple. Various people from Vote Leave were attracted to the idea of just staying out of it and letting the Tory party collapse.
When was this?
June 2019. But there were two basic problems. One was that if we didn’t go in and sort it out, Brexit wouldn’t happen, and there would be a second referendum, which we thought would be very bad for the country indeed. And the second was Corbyn. 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 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 a chance, with Boris being as 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 round to the house — but even then, we thought: there’s a reasonable chance that this goes tits up.
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. She basically supported us until 10pm 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.” Carrie was supportive of Vote Leave from the day we came in to help with the 2019 election. She personally called me and said “Please do this”.
And if we hadn’t, 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.
You keep saying ‘we’: who do you mean?
My team from Vote Leave.
But what was going wrong?
The way that the Tories went about Brexit on every level was a total disaster. Starting the whole formal process before they even knew what the hell they were trying to do. Using EU citizens as negotiating chips, which we’d said should never happen. We should have passed 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 Vote Leave that drove the country crazy. The Tory party and Whitehall spent three years cocking it up.
By summer 2019, something had to break: there’s no clean way of getting out of that situation. A second referendum would have been 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.
What did you think about a second referendum?
Back in 2015, I floated the idea of having two referendums, and said that 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. Everybody said, “Absolutely not. One referendum, it’s got to resolve this for a generation.” And then they spent three years dicking around, only to say, “you know what? Fuck it, we actually can’t do this, because it’s unsolvable. You shouldn’t have voted like this.”
Do you still think it was right to leave Europe?
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.
That took the blinkers off for me.
Especially now, when you look at how history worked out, and knowing that Covid was coming, it’s very hard to make the case that things could have been different. We know that Whitehall was completely unprepared for Brexit; we know that the whole thing was a complete shitshow; we know the original plan had to be ditched. And we know a bunch of us had to steer it, while dealing with him. And on top of that, we had a non-functioning government with no parliamentary majority. I mean, my God, imagine how much worse the whole thing could have been.
Was there a time when you did get on with Johnson personally?
We are both really odd characters. 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 at that point Carrie 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, if chaotic for the country. He was reasonably focused because he knew he was not far from being booted out.
So, you got on with him on the basis that he took your advice. And then he stopped?
He trolleyed around a bit, obviously, but in terms of big things he mostly listened. But as soon as he came back in January from his holiday, you could see immediately that the whole thing was going to be a disaster.
Immediately after the election. The election happens; there’s five or so days and then he’s sauntered off to some sort of billionaire island; and then at the beginning of January she immediately was on at him about firing all of us, which obviously is not a great way of starting a new government.
But also, from the start we had completely different attitudes. My attitude was: okay, we’ve won the election, we’ve got a supermajority, now we have the chance to solve a whole load of fundamental problems. 2020 is the year to do the hard things: things like planning reform, which no one dares touch, decade after decade, because it’s so politically difficult. Fuck that. It’s time to do it. Ignore the press. Focus on this.
And he didn’t share this view?
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 was this clash of basic ideas.
Because you want systemic change in almost every part of the state. You had been talking about planning for procurement, reforming the civil service, nuclear weapons, pandemics: is that because you are all doom and gloom?
Some people would say that. But in the last couple of years, I’ve thought: “What did I say about pandemics?” Now, we’re all talking about nuclear war and Putin. But with nukes, for example, 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.”
And then in 2019, I came along and started poking around, trying to get all the real figures. I was sitting down with the deep state saying: “Open the books.” And they’d say, “Can I just tell the truth?”
What do you mean by the “deep state”?
I mean the set of officials who actually control Whitehall — people like the Cabinet Secretary, those who run the intelligence services, certain crucial people in the Cabinet Office. These people who have a lot more power than basically any ministers — apart from, nominally, the Prime Minister.
Certain conspiracy theorists use the phrase “deep state” in America.
I think to some extent Trump does use the phrase as a conspiracy — but that doesn’t mean I do. I am talking about something entirely real. I’m not talking about any kind of conspiracy.
But to some extent, Trump had a point, right? In the sense that there was 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 who were shut down, like scientists who were going to get jobs who were then frozen out. The FBI simply refused to vet them for 18 months.
Trump obviously talks a whole load of shit but as a lot of the Russia stuff showed, there actually was a conspiracy against him in parts of the system.
Do you mean the machinery of government then? I ask because it seems to me that you pitted yourself not just against Johnson but against that machinery.
The irony of the situation is that of all the different players in Westminster — the political parties, the media, Boris, the Tory MPs — the people who we, the Vote Leave team, got on with best was the deep state. There was a kind of alliance in a lot of ways. We both wanted to sort out some of these problems: the shitshow around nuclear weapons, procurement, bringing technology into Number 10.
The media presented us as Vote Leave psychopaths, at war with everyone, 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.
When you say Vote Leave, you’re not talking about Nigel Farage?
No. That’s why there was the coup in January 2016. To try and get rid of me. Because Bernard Jenkin-type people wanted to merge the whole thing together with Farage. I refused. 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 around July 2015, suddenly his attitude changed. It was: “I’ve got to run the whole thing.” He’s a bit like Boris: he has some communication gifts but he’s also a total organisational shambles.
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 — and yet you’ve also been promoting women around you.
It’s not really contradictory.
Some people would say it is, 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?
Number 10 is 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, 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.
When you put your call out for “weirdos and misfits”, people interpreted that as you wanting employees who would be totally dedicated to you.
Partly. But it was also a call to Whitehall and Westminster. They’re full of very similar people who did very similar degrees at very similar universities. My view is that you need different kinds of people around. I think the Covid inquiry will show that groupthink was a very serious problem.
I put out that blog about “weirdos and misfits” in January 2020 and it became the foundation for recruiting. It did bring in some excellent women. By summer, 29-year-old women were 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.”
A lot of people didn’t like what I had done, but I thought: “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 —which he did, obviously — was at least much better.
Have you ever had therapy?
I’m not interested in my own emotional state.
Never have been.
But you’re interested in other people’s emotional states?
I’ve got no interest in my own emotional state. Or myself. I find my own emotional state the most boring subject I could think of.
Isn’t one of your gifts being able to interpret other people’s emotions? I’m surprised to hear you say that you’re not interested in your own. It sounds like denial to me, but a lot of people in politics are like this.
Most people in politics are recruited based on whether they can stand up and speak. I noticed that a long time ago, with Boris and Gove: we’d all be exhausted, arriving somewhere where one of them was speaking, and I would always think “my God, the idea of standing up and speaking right now is just completely horrific”, but they feel the exact opposite. They both love speaking and they’re both energised by it, whereas I would be driven catatonic at the thought of it. Then there are the 1,000-yard stares among the likes of Hancock and Truss. Rolling news and social media encourages more of the narcissists to get involved as a sort of low-grade alternative to being a celebrity.
Do you still have contact with people there? Is Johnson staying?
As far as we know. The fact that Rishi blew himself up makes it much more likely that Boris will somehow survive. I don’t want to say “no chance”, but I think Rishi is out of the running. They’re going to be thinking who can win the next election. Whatever you might think of Michael Gove’s abilities, he is not a loved character. There are some very junior people who I like, who I won’t curse by naming — if I name them then everyone will hate them. But it’s a very, very poor Cabinet.
You said you thought Labour should be led by a woman from the North like Lisa Nandy?
Yeah, because Starmer is pretty rubbish.
What about the trans stuff?
The last thing we should be doing is giving a desperate Tory Party that has been a fiasco for years a wedge issue — the chance to say at the next election, you can’t define a woman. Labour is stupid. The more they try to fudge it, the worse the problem gets.
You’re not in the Tory party. Do you want to be in another party?
I’m not a joiner by nature. I don’t like parties. “Parties” or parties. I don’t like going to parties.
Were there journalists at the parties?
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.
Were there parties at Chequers?
So people say.
There are a lot of rumours about Carrie now.
Nothing would surprise me. She can’t be happy with the situation now. Obviously it’s all blowing up in her face. And then there’s all of his money stuff.
Did he talk about all this with you?
That was an important part of the whole disaster with 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 [Lytle, the interior designer] running up these huge bills. In January, he said: “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.”
I said: “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.” But his mindset was very much: “Fuck that. I’m going do what I want.” He’s always been like that: famously turns up at places and then just leaves and lets everyone else pay the bill.
What do you do for fun?
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.
Do you like music? Do you like film? Do you watch telly?
I watch telly. I used to watch a lot of movies. Not much really. I just hang around, read, go for walks.
Do you like cooking?
I know you like Russian literature. Do you speak Russian?
I could speak basic Russian, when I lived there 20 years ago.
Must have been a fascinating time to live there.
Russia is such a fucked-up place. It’s not Europe. It’s a dark place. There are some wonderful people there — some of the best-educated people you will ever, ever meet in your life.
Did you know about the Lebedev peerage?
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 that I didn’t win. I suspect they’ll just keep all that quiet until Boris goes. Unless the deep state people decide to leak it, which they might do.
He always thinks he can get away with it. And now?
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 here. 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. 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.”
The election was on 12 December. By mid-January he was 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, 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”.
He must have trusted you to tell you that.
He’s very odd. He does overshare but also at the same time never trusts anybody. Also, part of the oversharing is to see what then turns up in the newspapers to see if you’re leaking.
You’ve been accused of leaking.
I have been accused of all sorts.
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. The Mail started to report things like tanks on the streets, rumours that London was going to be locked down and people wouldn’t be allowed to leave. She would call me and I would 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 you’ll cause chaos.
The BBC political editor is going to have a relationship with the Prime Minister’s main political adviser. That’s just a fact of life. To think I have been criticised for that: it’s just crazy. People thought there was “Dom’s dark web”. Johnson thought: “He wants to cut me and my friends off from dealing with the media, so that everything goes through his secret network”.
Okay, what’s your secret network?
The irony was that in 2020, I was barely speaking to the press. But he never believed it. I stopped speaking to the press in November, before the election. I talked to Laura, sometimes [Robert] Peston. That’s about it. I would tell Lee [Cain] what was happening.
12 March 2020 was the most insane day of the whole thing, and probably the most insane day in Number 10 since 1945. The day started with me trying to bounce the system towards much more radical action against Covid. Trump then tried to get us to engage with a bombing mission — to fly over and bomb a load of people in the Middle East. That was never revealed at the time — it only came out when I mentioned it to the MPs last year.
I can’t say who — but okay, mostly people in Iraq.
So, I say to Boris: “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. We’re going to have thousands of people dead here in the next few weeks. We’ve got to sort out Covid.”
And he says: “This fucking Times story about Dilyn. It says the whole place is chaos. And me and Carrie are living like students with Dilyn shitting everywhere and the staff, the cleaners, all going mad. I want a fucking inquiry. I want to know who briefed it. Carrie thinks it’s you.”
We’ve got meetings on bombing. We’ve got meetings on Covid. Everything is going down the fucking toilet. But he’s getting texts from her about whether he’s started the inquiry into the Dilyn leak.
That’s what we’re dealing with.
It feels like no one is in charge.
It definitely feels like the institutions are all kind of crumbling.
Is this what you wanted? This disruption?
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. They thought, rightly, that we would shake that shit up and things would be very different. People like me say: all these things are rotten. They say: we are going to cause chaos.
Looking at what happened with Covid, our fears were 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 start. You then have to 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&E. It’s totally imploded in large parts of the country. Unless some force actually starts to rejuvenate these things, then…
What do you think of people who don’t vote?
Most people just think: “What’s the point? They’re all a bunch of wankers.”
This interview is adapted from Suzanne Moore’s Substack, Letters from Suzanne.