“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.“ Otto Von Bismarck.
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.“ Sun Tzu.
“The minimax: choose a strategy that minimises the possible maximum loss.” John Von Neumann on Game Theory.
“Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.” Napoleon Bonaparte.
Who and what is Dominic Cummings, why did he make such a pig’s ear of his media conference, and what does Boris Johnson hope to gain by standing by him?
As I write this (27th May 2020), the 65th day of lockdown due to COVID-19, the main news story is Britain’s least photogenic man, Dominic Cummings’s relationship with reality and the truth and more photogenic, if less keen on eugenics, Boris Johnson.
A little background first. Following weeks of pressure, the UK government finally announced lockdown measures would begin on 23th March 2020. Only key workers would go to work, everyone else would stay at home in order to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. Remarkably, flights from other countries still ran and no quarantine was put in place for people travelling from anywhere. Since then, 14 day quarantine measures have been put in place, but won’t actually be implemented until June 8th. The government’s message was clear: “Stay Home -> Save Lives”. I say “clear” but frantic backpedalling by a government for whom velcro fastening shoes might have been invented has led to widespread confusion.
However, on the 22nd of May, The Daily Mirror and The Guardian broke a story that detailed how eyewitness accounts from Durham had reported sightings of Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special aide, apparently in breech of the lockdown rules that he had been involved in writing. The extent of his involvement is unclear but it has been speculated that he was in charge of holding the pen because Gavin Williamson’s mum doesn’t trust him with anything sharper than marmalade. The articles alleged that he had been spoken to by Durham police.
The next day, Downing Street issued a statement:
“Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.
“At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.
“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”
The report, which cast doubts on Cummings’s suitability for his role as pen monitor was verified by Durham police who stated that they had spoken to him about lockdown. Several days later, they changed their story and said they’d spoken to him about security. Though vague, the general impression was that Dominic Raab had been eyeing some of his son’s crayons and dribbling.
Doorstepping him at home, a reporter pointed out that his behaviour “...wasn’t a good look.” Cummings responded, “Who cares about good looks? It’s not about what you guys think.”
That bullish statement was merely the first of many that the previously unflappable Cummings may have ample opportunity to reflect upon at leisure in the coming months.
Some Conservative MPs backed him on social media and TV while others called for his resignation. Still others were reportedly stymied through having used up all their screen time that day on Animal Crossing.
The day after that, Cummings appeared in the back garden of 10 Downing Street to issue a statement to the press and to take questions about his alleged flouting of the lockdown rules – an unprecedented move as the Code of Conduct for Special Advisors reads, “…must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets.”
After keeping the socially distanced media representative waiting for half an hour, Cummings made a statement and answered questions for about an hour, and that was just Robert Peston asking if he could use the toilet.
If his appearance was designed to put a lid on the story and clean it up – and, like Michael Gove in a lavatory – it failed to achieve that most basic aims.
Dominic Cummings was privately educated at Durham School, where his surname wasn’t even remarked upon for his first eight years due to his remarkable resemblance to an onion without a face, and gained a first in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford in 1994. He then went to Russia for three years where he failed to set up an airline but succeeded in pursuing his obsession with Dostoyevsky. He returned to Britain. In 2002, perhaps inspired by at least the title of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, he began working for Iain Duncan Smith, thus beginning his association with the Conservative party. Cummings called Duncan Smith, best known for lying about going to university in Italy and firmly believing that the meritocracy should apply to everybody except himself, as “incompetent“.
Following a couple of years in Think Tanks, he joined then Education Secretary and Karaoke enthusiast (speciality: Wham Rap – I’m not joking), Michael Gove, as his Chief of Staff, during which appointment he described the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Free School Meals proposal as “Dreamed up on the back of a cigarette packet.” which was ludicrous because Nick Clegg didn’t look old enough to buy fags. He offended butchers all over the country and amphibians by describing my local MP, David Davis as “Thick as mince,” and “Lazy as a toad.” David Cameron, then Prime Minister, and allegedly on rather better terms with butchers than Cummings, described him as “A career psychopath”, even though Cameron knew Rebekah Brooks, which is the equivalent of being friends with Jimmy Savile and calling Dave Lee Travis “a bit handsy“.
Leaving his post in 2014, Cummings became Campaign Director of “Vote Leave” in 2015 where his masterstroke was improving on Goebbels’ maxim about “lying big”, by printing an already big lie about sending the NHS £350 million a week, in absolutely enormous letters on the side of a bus.
On 24 July 2019, Cummings was appointed as a Senior Adviser to Britain’s favourite casual racist, misogynist and father to an indeterminate number of children, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Theresa May’s successor.
The Conservative party won a landslide victory in December 2019 that was all about “Get(ting) Brexit Done“.
And then, like Liz Truss deciding to take part in a conversation, disaster struck – the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
Dominic Cummings, apparently in thrall to Groucho Marx’s line about not joining clubs than anyone in history, has never been a member of the Conservative Party .
“People think, and by the way I think most people are right: “The Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me””; and that “Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people. They don’t care about the NHS. And the public has kind of cottoned on to that.” Dominic Cummings, June 2017.
Who and What Is Dominic Cummings?
“Awkward yet arrogant, he wasn’t interested in exchanging small talk but enjoyed provoking a row, sharing views that were deliberately extreme and designed to enrage.”
“…never believed the rules of our society apply to him.”
Writer Lebby Ayres, on her “old university friend Dominic Cummings”.
At heart, Dominic Cummings is a man who believes, and has always believed, that he knows better than everybody else. An Oxford university professor of his described him as, “fizzing with ideas, unconvinced by any received set of views about anything.”
This has been a hallmark of Cummings throughout his time advising politicians and, in some ways, it’s not too great a stretch to understand why a person might develop such ideas about himself. Were you five foot one and you lived among pygmies, you’d consider yourself tall. If you worked with someone like David Davis, for whom “Thick as mince” is bordering on complimentary, perhaps you too would leave work every day with the growing idea that, at least in comparison to the likes of him, you were a genius.
- Fear & Loathing In Education. Or, Son of The Blob.
I work in education. I’m, presumably, a part of “The Blob” that Cummings reserves some bile for. Teachers are regularly labelled as “lazy” and “workshy“, especially by the right wing media and people who are keen on every single aspect of being English apart from learning how to write in it.
However, my point is, standing in front of people, telling them how to behave and what to do is not, I believe, very good for people. A lot of people hate teachers and, yeah, the holidays, yeah, finishing classes at 3:30pm, but really, it’s simpler than that. A lot of teachers get used to the idea that they ought to be listened to and start to believe that everybody else ought to listen to them too. They learn a way of speaking down to children, and they carry that tone of voice into their everyday life, where they irritate grown ups because they talk like teachers. I have sympathy for those people, even though I can read.
However, having described such people as “The Blob”, Dominic Cummings is no different to your average, well-meaning Primary School Teacher in that he, too, has become used to being listened to. Yes, I said, “well-meaning” because I think he is. I don’t think he’s compassionate or particularly caring but, as a person who knows better than everybody else what’s good for them, he has become, in more ways than one, a person who works long hours and who believes that other people ought to do as he tells them. As I’ve said, I don’t blame teachers and I don’t blame him – the work and the position don’t make for well-rounded people. Except physically.
Cummings’s refusal to engage with the sharper minded journalists over the years has done nothing for his intellect.
To summarise? Cummings, in surrounding himself with people not known for their intellectual prowess, and with a noted tendency to rate his own intellect quite highly, has fallen into lazy thinking along the lines that he firmly believes that he is a genius in a world full of morons. Which, as I’ve said, is a conclusion most people would arrive at if they worked with people like Gavin Williamson, a man with more teeth than synapses.
2. “Who cares about good looks?” Or, The Psychology of Attractive People.
“He couldn’t care less whether the world hates him. In fact, he appears to relish it.” Stephen Glover, Daily Mail.
‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’ Colonel Boyd. Cited on Cummings’s blog.
Psychology is a topic that Dominic Cummings has written about on his blog, generally in terms of how to get people to make progress in the way that he believes they ought to progress. Psychology, fundamentally, is the study of what people (and other animals) do, why they do it, and how to get them to do something else instead. Cummings’s interest in psychology is mainly rooted in the last of those three things at the expense of the first two which, he may consider with hindsight (which we’ll come to later) to be an oversight that he may have difficulty amending.
In contrast to Cummings, I’m going to focus primarily on the first two, with reference to some classic psychological studies.
1. Fantz’s Looking Chamber – Fantz, Robert L (1961).
Fantz set up the contrapation above. The infant could look at either a bulls-eye or a sketch of a human face. From behind the board, invisible to the baby, he observed what the baby looked at. A two-month old baby looked twice as much at the human face as it did at the bulls-eye. It’s not clear what would have happened if the face had been Michael Gove’s, but that would never have happened because Psychology has a rigorously enforced code of ethics. I say, “rigorously”, when, of course, nothing could be further than the truth, but even the most immoral psychologists have their limits.
Conclusion: human babies have some powers of pattern and form selection. prior to this, the belief was that babies looked out onto a chaotic world of which they could make little sense.
2. What is beautiful is good – Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972)
Participants were presented with photographs of people to be rated for attractiveness: good, bad, or neutral. They were then asked to rate the people in the photographs on a variety of other dimensions. The results: physically attractive people were judged to be more intelligent, sensitive, sincere, and morally upright in comparison to unattractive people. Some people have attempted to take this idea to its natural conclusions and suggest that attractive people really are better people than unattractive people, but those tend to be people who spend too much time with Conservative members of parliament.
3. Attractiveness & Jury Decision – Sigall and Ostrove (1975)
Participants played the parts of jurors and were asked to deliver verdicts on photographs of people who, again, had been rated as attractive, or
as potential parliamentary candidates for market towns in Yorkshire unattractive.
When a defendant who had been independently assessed as attractive was accused of burglary, she was sentenced to less jail time than a less attractive defendant. However, if the defendant was accused of swindling, a more beautiful defendant was judged more harshly. I’ll come back to that.
The relevance of these studies to Cummings’s current predicament are as follows.
The first experiment tells us that from a very early age, we look to people’s faces to make sense of the world. People have focused on Cummings’s facial expressions during his conference because that’s what we do.
The second experiment suggests that, as a man who resembles a root vegetable more than a primate – people in general are unlikely to attribute intelligence, sensitivity, sincerity, and morally uprightness to a person with a face like his. Unfair? Most certainly. Especially to the vegetable section at Aldi.
The final experiment shows us that, regardless of guilt, the less attractive person is more likely to be found guilty of burglary. Cummings isn’t accused of burglary, of course. However, burglary is a crime that is associated with operating in the shadows, away from the glare of attention. You might be inclined to suggest that he’s more likely to be accused of swindling in terms of his lack of adherence to the lockdown rules, but I wouldn’t agree with you. The swindling that Sigall & Ostrove referred to relates to a person using their attractiveness nefariously in order to relieve people of their money which is hardly applicable to Cummings’s actions. Whatever else he’s done, nobody’s suggesting that he’s wormed his way into a war veteran’s pension book by flashing his tits at them.
Cummings told us that he drove to Durham “at around midnight“. I’m not suggesting that he combined his midnight flit with a spot of light breaking and entering, but I am saying that there’s no indication that he wanted to be seen doing it, which at least shows some consideration for sighted people in Islington.
“Who cares about looks?” Therein lies the rub, Dominic. It turns out that pretty much everybody does, although we should forgive him because I wouldn’t have too many mirrors in my house if I were him either.
Psychology experiments show us repeatedly – even though I’m deliberately misusing Cummings’ words to point out where he’s gone wrong – that more attractive people get away with more things than the unattractive. As I say, harsh.
However, this is what has happened in politics. Rosenberg’s paper on “The Image and The Vote: The Effect of Candidate Presentation on Voter Preference” (1986) concludes that voters choose their elected leaders, in part, the same way they choose whether to eat something or not: in terms of what they look like.
Participants rated photographs of real and non-real politicians on characteristics such as competence, trustworthiness, leadership ability and political demeanor. Rosenberg found that the best-looking, best-dressed candidates scored higher ratings and were more likely to be voted for. Again, there’s always an exception to the rule, and in this century, it’s Michael Gove.
Image politics are where we currently are in 2020. In the last British election, Labour’s policies were more popular than the Tories and yet the Tories won by a landslide. I’m not suggesting that Boris Johnson is a physically attractive man but I will concede that he possesses a sort of charisma that Jeremy Corbyn does not. Not the sort of charisma that would make him the sort of person you’d want hanging around children but, as he’s amply demonstrated over the years, that’s not something he’s ever likely to do for very long.
Rosenberg found that by changing hair styles, clothing and makeup of six test candidates, he could push positive ratings up or down by one fifth. The bottom line is that Johnson’s image worked and Corbyn’s didn’t. They’re both scruffy, but Corbyn’s scruffiness was a bone of contention in a way that Johnson’s wasn’t.
Johnson attempted to shut the story down himself by stating that he had spoken with Cummings and, while he provided no details, parroted that Cummings had “acted with integrity and responsibly.” And when I say “parroted“, I mean in the way that a parrot can say words but doesn’t have any idea what they mean. As the media circus showed no signs of closing down and moving onto anything else – unsurprisingly, with their arch-tormentor Cummings in their sights – Johnson took the unprecedented step of giving Cummings a platform to provide details for himself to the media in the garden at 10 Downing Street.
Cummings’ statement took pains to clarify that he didn’t tell Johnson what he was doing when he broke the lockdown rules that they had put in place for everyone else – on several occasions during the speech, and during the questioning. Make no mistake, what this meant was that Johnson was prepared to stand by Cummings providing Cummings managed to shut down the story. This was the first point at which Johnson began to subtly distance himself from Cummings. Had the decision been Cummings’s, he would not have spoken to the media at all – it was under duress and he obviously didn’t like it.
Even scruffier than the bin twins Corbyn and Johnson combined, Cummings’s work clothes generally consist of baggy t-shirts, scruffy beanies and jogging bottoms. Some commentators noted that, at his press conference, he took the unusual step of wearing a white, formal shirt.
White, of course, symbolises innocence and purity. The rare sighting of him in a formal shirt might have been a surprise to some, but it wouldn’t have been to Rosenberg.
However, as we’ve already seen, Cummings has little to no time for “received views on anything” and the effect was perhaps diminished by his lack of tie and by his rolling up of his sleeves as he sat down to read his prepared statement to the media, displaying very hairy arms, perhaps in an ill-judged attempt to distance himself from primates. Cummings was prepared to make some concessions to Number 10: the shirt and speaking to the media. But he wasn’t going to wear a tie and he was going to roll up his sleeves at a point when there was no one around to tell him not to at the point at which he did it – in front of the media.
A media that he had systematically spent most of his life a) avoiding, and b) alienating by restricting their access to senior politicians.
From which, we can draw two conclusions:
- Holding his own conference was a mistake because the media hate him and he’s not attractive or charismatic enough to convince anyone – even if he had a plausible story. Which he didn’t. Would he have realised that? I think he would, which leads us to…
- He was pushed into speaking to them and he was pushed into wearing a shirt. Neither of which he found comfortable. He didn’t have the authority to overrule the SPAD Code of Conduct (“…must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets.“), but Johnson probably did, and he did that to save himself.
3. “But He’s A Genius!” Or, possibly, “He’s Not That Clever, Is He?”
Prior to recent events, any description of Dominic Cummings has incorporated reference to his brains. Since his conference, doubts have been raised.
“Must confess to some surprise at how easy it is to expose the lies of a man as brilliant as, we are told, Cummings is.” Jo Maugham QC – Twitter.
“I don’t want to jump the gun or anything but Dominic Cummings isn’t that clever after all, is he?” James O’Brien, Talk Radio host – Twitter.
Intelligence is an area in psychology with probably more research than any other and the reason for that is because it’s complicated. No, actually, it’s fucking complicated. And, like all complicated things that affect everybody, everybody wants to know about it. Especially stupid people. Like Gavin Williamson. The result is that complicated, subtle messages become distorted through over-simplification and widespread misconceptions are the result.
I’m not claiming to understand intelligence in all its many and varied forms – not to mention the reality that psychology, like any scientific pursuit, has reached very little in the way of consensus about it among its practitioners.
What I am going to (briefly) go into, is the psychology of the stupid mistake. The question is, does making a stupid mistake make the person who makes them stupid?
In the Psychological journal Intelligence, Balazs Aczel compiled a collection of stories describing stupid mistakes. University students then rated each story in terms of the responsibility of the people involved, the influence of the situation, the seriousness of the consequences, and other factors.
Analysis revealed three varieties of stupid mistakes:
- Confidence outstrips skill. An American robbed two banks in broad daylight without wearing a disguise, believing that lemon juice he had rubbed on his face would make him invisible to security cameras. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is relatively famous. The short version is that stupid people are too stupid to realise how stupid they are. The natural effect of this tends to be that the less intelligent people of the world tend to rate themselves as highly intelligent. Because they’re stupid.
- Acting Without Thinking. In the scandal that became known as Weinergate, former U.S. representative Anthony Weiner sent mucky texts and pictures of himself to women he’d met on Facebook. It’s also important to recognise that, just because we might do something impulsive and not really consider the wider implications of the stupid things we end up doing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re not also just plain stupid as well. After resigning, Weiner continued to do exactly the same thing, but “cleverly” under the name of Carlos Danger (good thinking, Weiner), and then rather overestimated his support in the 2013 New York City mayoral elections.
- Not paying attention. A couple of years ago, a cyclist taking part in a road race near Hull managed to kill himself by riding into the back of a parked car because he had his head down and was paying more attention to pedaling than where he was going.
On the other hand, if it’s someone else who’s going to suffer, maybe none of them count. Especially if you think the normal rules don’t apply to you…
If we accept that Cummings isn’t a total moron – and I don’t think he is, at least not all the time, certainly he’s exhibited some forms of intelligence over the years – which of these crimes against brains did he commit at the press conference?
In order to reach a conclusion, let’s consider the things he said that could be considered stupid.
A. He went home to check on his wife who rang him to tell him she was exhibiting Coronavirus symptoms and then went straight back to work without isolating himself. Some may view this as a form of euthanasia, with which I sympathise.
B. He needed to drive 260 miles from London to Durham in case his child needed looking after, even though his wife turned out to not have had coronavirus. Not one of the 8.7 million people who live in London was available to look after his child, even though most of them were off work, which does suggest that maybe Cummings isn’t just ugly on the outside.
C. After recovering from Coronavirus at his parents’ farm in Durham, he said his eyesight was “a bit weird” and decided to “drive down the road” – thirty odd miles down to a local beauty spot – on his wife’s birthday, which he didn’t mention, funnily enough – to see if he would be alright on a five hour drive back home to London. With his child, whose welfare was his prime concern, strapped in the back…
D. Another reason he went to Durham was because his London home was “already a target“, again, presumably because he’s widely seen as a bit of a cunt, and he did not want to make his parents’ and sister’s home a target to “harassment” as well. How that works, I don’t know how that works, bearing in mind that, presumably, the problem that any baying mobs outside his house have is with him, as opposed to the actual building he resides in. This was during the lockdown, when TV news showed deserted streets in London, with the police patrolling them to ensure people weren’t breaking lockdown.
E. He claimed that he was in favour of lockdown, because, “Only last year I wrote explicitly about the danger of coronaviruses. I stressed the importance of government planning and I was worried people were not taking it seriously enough.” Thus sprake Dominic Cummings, prophet of the future.
There are further discrepancies – his wife wrote an article, published in The Spectator (in which the editor missed an incomplete sentence: “Whatever anyone thinks about (Cummings), he is kind… missing out “…of a cunt.” presumably), in which she described their experiences with the virus. She described how he “couldn’t get out of bed…for ten days“, she didn’t mention going to Durham and she didn’t mention how his eyes were “weird“. In a previous article, however, she did describe her ability to drive, which raised inevitable questions about why Dominic Cummings felt that he had to drive, even though he was the one with weird eyesight and he was the one who’d been ill. It’s almost as if it was a pre-emptory article, perhaps Prophet of the future, Dominic Cummings saw all this in his crystal ball. When his eyes stopped being weird or something.
Balazs Aczel’s research is useful here, but really, everything Cummings said can be explained by (1) The Dunning-Kruger Effect – an overestimation of his ability. But, it’s slightly different from the example I gave about the bank robber with his lemon juice disguise because it’s not so much Cummings’s overestimation of his own abilities as his underestimation of everybody else’s ability to spot a great, fat lie. As I’ve suggested, a working relationship with David Davis, Gavin Williamson and perpetually-pooing-toddler-face Matt Hancock, is likely to bring that out in anybody. It’s not that he thinks he’s great, so much as he thinks everybody else is thick enough to believe it.
Even E – his prescient blog on Coronavirus from last year – shows that he didn’t think anybody would bother to check. Which they did. Journalists using the Wayback machine looked and found that, on the very day he returned to London from Durham, he updated his blog and added in a section about Coronavirus. Hence: another lie.
Having made his statement, over the next few days, some MPs – and other (exclusively right-wing commentators) took to media – mainstream and social – to tell us that they believed him and now we ought to shut up and move on.
Michael Gove, who normally struggles to turn off his Beyonce ringtone on his fancy watch, and Cummings’s former boss, took to Twitter to build a Straw Man argument around the statement, “Caring for your wife and family is not a crime“. The downside of this particular incidence of stupidity (Acting without thinking) is that, of course, the implication is that people who obeyed the lockdown rules did not care for their families. Perhaps he was strung out on cocaine at the time, it certainly sounds like it. A few days later, Gove told the bemused and disbelieving public that he too tested whether he could see or not by going for a drive.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of The Exchequer who has recently bucked the tendency of most Tory politician by appearing to live on land, as opposed to beneath it, or in water, tried to obfuscate the matter by stating “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t.” thus making the understandable case that “lying” and “politics” are, in fact, exactly the same thing.
Is Cummings a genius or a moron? The evidence points us to the entirely unsurprising concept that he’s very good at some things and very bad at others. Which is very much like the current cabinet, in so far as, they’re very good at agreeing with whatever Boris Johnson tells them to agree with and making twats of themselves on television, and very bad at doing other things, like speaking or having ideas of their own that are applicable to human beings who live on planet Earth. Some of these things that he’s very bad at, he’s aware of (appearing in public, making friends, getting the press onside) but was pushed into anyway.
Did he make a good job of the press conference? No, he made a pig’s ear of it. If he had previously considered himself above the rest of the dribbling goons whom he shouts at every day at work, he swiftly learned – you’d hope – that in some ways at least, he was exactly the same as them. But, then again, you or I would also make tits of ourselves, given the material he had to work with. The question I ask myself is, “What the hell did they reject as plausible explanations if what he actually said was the best he came up with?”
Diversion: Top 5 rejected excuses for driving to countryside during lockdown.
1. Fuck ’em, I do what I want
2. Researching bluebell poultice for Covid-19
3. Worried about lonely, frightened bunny rabbits
4. Sticking it to unelected bureaucrats
5. I’m the new Princess of Hearts
End of Diversion.
The mistake he made was getting caught, when he thought he wouldn’t. And even if he did, he thought he could tell the media to sod off and they’d have no choice but to accept it. And they didn’t. Funnily enough, bearing in mind the amount of effort he’s put into pissing them off.
4. “He’s a Psychopath!” Or, How To Spot A Liar.
Social media has been full of Cumgate, as the Twitter trend would have it. Another unfortunate effect of lockdown (for a lot of people) is that they are now sitting at home with nothing much else pressing to get on with. One of the terms that has been bandied about by armchair psychologists is “The Duper’s Delight“. Cummings gave a slight smirk* as he walked back into 10 Downing Street and, suddenly, Twitter was full of it.
(*Priti Patel is another noted smirker and many people interpret it as unappealing smugness. Perhaps it is, but I’m not convinced. Without wanting to be too rude about a woman who has more than enough faults without resorting to what I’m about to mention deeply, Patel is a large woman with a relatively thin face with better cheekbones than she deserves. My interpretation is that her smirk is nothing more than her version of a pout that, rather than inflating her lips – out of which terrible, terrible things emanate – she pulls her lips back to make the most of those cheekbones and divert attention from her incongruously large body. She might well be smug, I don’t know, but above that, she’s unappealingly vain.)
Psychology articles on the web fall into two (to be reductionist) main categories: how to make people like you and how to tell if people are lying to you. In terms of the first, the answer is, don’t be Dominic Cummings, in terms of the latter, the answer is it’s complicated and it’s hard to tell.
There are thousands of pages devoted to paying attention to which way people look when they’re lying, to what they do with their hands, to – well, you name it. None of them are particularly valid. If they were, we wouldn’t need courts, and the same thing goes for Lie Detectors.
The best way to uncover lies isn’t by looking at what people do – and the expression is not “Body Language”, it’s “Involuntary Non-verbal Communication” – it’s to listen to what they say, not how they say it, and to get them to go over it, ideally backwards and to pay attention to that. Which is understandably difficult in terms of the cabinet because they can barely string a sentence together between them. Especially Lynne Truss.
There’s also much spoken about the amount of detail give when lying. The common perception is that, when lying, people go into all sorts of unnecessary detail, again, not supported by much in the way of evidence. To be as glib as I’m prepared to be on this subject, once the person’s given their story, when you ask them questions about it, those who are lying tend to not give much more detail and use fewer words with fewer syllables. Those telling the truth do provide additional details and use longer words when they do it. And even that’s not perfect.
Was he lying? Of course he was. How do we know? The only events he mentioned were things that had already been reported in the media, he just gave reasons why he did those things. There were a series of events, around which a narrative was constructed – and Boris Johnson was explicitly pointed out to have been unaware of any of the ones that might have incriminated him.
If you need further proof, the lie about having written about Coronavirus on his blog last year was one that could be verified easily. It took less than a day for internet sleuths to provide evidence that what he said was untrue. And if he was lying about that, what else was he lying about? In getting found out, his credibility went west and with it went Boris Johnson’s. If he had any. I know, it’s like complaining that someone ate the last pimply oaf out of a sweaty bag of Licorice Allsorts.
5. “Why Doesn’t Johnson Sack Him?” The Pantomime Horse Hypothesis.
In short, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are two halves of one pantomime horse. Cummings is the rear end, where the brains are, and Johnson is at the front, mugging for the kids in the front row.
Dominic Cummings could never be a politician. In an arena in which pussyfooting around the question and being vague is the currency du jour, he’s too blunt. He wouldn’t be prepared to be on the backbenches and, even in a world populated by anthropomorphic slugs such as Michael Gove, he’s not attractive enough to make it to the top, where he believes he should be. Even if he was, he doesn’t have the social skills to get along with other politicians, to play along with the machinations in the House of Commons because he thinks, “Most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgment)“. And he can’t keep his mouth shut about it. He was described as “Awkward, abrupt, arrogant, aggressive, chronically late.” by Chris Lockwood, (Former) member of Conservative Policy Unit. He couldn’t do it, but he wants power.
Boris Johnson is exactly the opposite, as Andrew Adonis, who doesn’t quite live up to his surname states, “Boris Johnson doesn’t believe in Brexit, he doesn’t believe in anything apart from Boris Johnson. He is a fundamentally amoral politician” Note, not immoral, but amoral. He wants to be in charge, but not because he wants anything, other than to be in charge. Cummings is, remember, “Fizzing with ideas“.
What Johnson does well is an impersonation of affability. The bumbling buffoon at worst, the chummy chap at best. This mask slips periodically, like it has now Keir Starmer has been making him look stupid and incompetent every Wednesday dinner time for the past few weeks. At these point, we witness the spite, bile and nastiness that Johnson’s amiable Billy Bunter mask conceals most of the rest of the time.
Boris can get people onside, even those he’s going to stampede over. The trouble is, he doesn’t really want to go anywhere. Marina Hyde this week wrote, “The thing about Johnson is that he desperately wanted to become prime minister, and he desperately wanted to have been prime minister. It’s just the bit in between he struggles with.”
And that’s why he doesn’t want rid of him. At Cummings’s behest, Johnson has put a cabinet of yes-men and yes-women behind him who are, as you’d expect, great at agreeing with ideas that Cummings gives Johnson, but markedly less good at having any ideas of their own.
Gavin Williamson, the only Education Secretary in History who appears to have never received one himself, is constructing a greatest hits of stupid comments, including, “Brexit could enhance the UK’s lethality”. In the House of Commons, his research on Syria consisted of him asking Siri about it through his phone. He posted a photo of his Land Rover, claiming that it “represented everything that was great about Britain”, apparently unaware that Land Rover is owned by India’s Tata Motors, and has been for over ten years. He suggested that “Russia should go away and shut up“, like his mum told to. Basic Geography is to Dominic Raab what Dark Matter is to cats: Raab didn’t appear to quite grasp the concept that much of Britain’s trade inevitably comes via the Calais – Dover channel, on account of Calais being the closest part of Europe to Britain. Priti Patel, showing herself to be thick as well as dreadful, promised to tackle “Counter-terrorism measures” and demonstrated that her number skills extend up to about “ten” when she read the number “334,974” as “Three hundred thousand, thirty four, nine hundred seventy four thousand“, which, at least, gives plenty credence to Cummings’s claim about MPs lacking maths skills.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg but the point remains: Boris Johnson has a cabinet of bottom set dullards who are more likely to eat the rubber buttons from their calculators than know how to use them. If Cummings goes, where does Johnson turn? Larry the Cat has more brains and is better looking than his cabinet and, in the case of Priti Patel, I expect he also displays more sympathy to wounded mammals too.
At least generally, and at least in public, Conservatives tend to be quite good at not backstabbing one another. Certainly better than Labour usually manage. However, behind the scenes, it’s a different matter.
Only five months ago, when Johnson won an 80 seat majority, he looked unstoppable. Now, with Cummings: the man tasked with the job of “makeshift brain” floundering like Esther McVey on Countdown, his absence appears not to be due to his tendency towards laziness, but because he’s in real trouble.
Every day that passes without announcing that he’s sacked Cummings, Johnson’s credibility plummets further. His approval rating two weeks ago was +25%. Today, it languishes at -1%. And it’s because he’s sticking with Cummings.
I suggested in my blog about the last election that it wasn’t so much that the Conservative party won the last election as Labour lost it because, frankly, people didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn. And this is the same thing. Labour aren’t doing anything because they don’t have to – they are following the advice of Napoleon Bonaparte as quoted at the top of this post.
As for the other quotations, I picked those because they all come from Dominic Cummings’s heroes, most of which I took directly from his own website.
Otto Von Bismarck’s famous one about learning from other people’s mistakes brings Andy Coulson – former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Special Advisor – to mind. Found guilty and imprisoned for phone hacking, believing himself too clever to get caught. To his credit, at least Dominic Cummings didn’t have an affair with the spouse beating Rebekah Brookes, so maybe he learned something, even if it wasn’t enough.
John Von Neumann’s quotation about choosing strategies that minimise your losses? Going to Durham was a poor strategy because there’s nothing you can say that’s going to fix it.
Sun Tzu’s about knowing when not to fight? Maybe that’s unfair. The fight was in the garden and Cummings didn’t want to and wouldn’t have, had it been up to him. But that’s what you get when you’re the back end of the pantomime horse – you get blindly led wherever the front wants you to go and, inevitably, you find yourself in the dark, with your nose up someone’s shitter.