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Dominic Cummings: Downing Street's disruptor in chief

4 min
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London (AFP)

The man behind British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's high-stakes Brexit strategy is top adviser Dominic Cummings -- a ruthless political strategist who masterminded the unexpected 2016 vote to leave the EU.

With his uncompromising and caustic style, Cummings has been compared to Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, and is similarly a keen student of military theories and tactics.

Cummings has been behind a series of sackings of ministerial aides seen as disloyal to the Brexit cause since Johnson came to power in July.

In a case that caused huge controversy in Westminster, government media adviser Sonia Khan was reportedly forced to hand over her phone to Cummings and escorted out of Downing Street by a police officer when she was dismissed.

His influence was also seen behind Johnson's decision last week to slash the number of days that parliament will be able to meet before Brexit day on October 31 in what was widely interpreted as a move to curb his opponents.

- 'Strategically single-minded' -

Cummings was director of the official Leave campaign in the referendum and is viewed as a disruptor who has brought his win-at-all-costs mentality to delivering Brexit -- alongside an instinct for radical reform of government.

Portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch as a tortured genius in a TV drama this year about the EU referendum, the 47-year-old is not a typical political aide.

"Dominic Cummings is the disruptor's disruptor -- he's strategically single-minded and ideologically iconoclastic," Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said after his appointment.

Opposition parties decried his appointment, noting that he was found in contempt of parliament in March for refusing to appear before a committee probing fake news during the referendum campaign.

In trademark style, he dismissively accused its members of having "greater interest in grandstanding than truth-seeking".

- 'Us against them' -

Born in Durham, northern England, to a father who worked as an oil rig project manager and a mother who was a special needs teacher, Cummings attended a local private school before winning admission to elite Oxford University.

A Russophile with a passion for Dostoyevsky, Cummings reportedly headed to the country after graduation and helped set up an airline in the 1990s which however failed to get off the ground.

After returning to Britain, he first cut his teeth in politics by spearheading several campaigns, including against Britain adopting the euro.

In an early sign of his take-no-prisoners approach, Cummings was made Conservative Party director of strategy in 2002 but left the role after eight months, branding then party leader Iain Duncan Smith "incompetent".

He became special adviser to education minister Michael Gove -- later a leading Brexiteer -- making a name for himself by developing an "us against them" bunker mentality within the department towards the rest of government.

Former prime minister David Cameron famously described him as a "career psychopath".

He is said to disdain Britain's apolitical civil service, viewing it as a block on innovation.

- Not a party member? -

After a period in the political wilderness, Cummings was picked to lead the Brexit referendum campaign.

The victory crowned his reputation as a political maverick who could deliver against the odds.

The data-driven campaign used social media nimbly and was seen as reaching voters typically ignored by Britain's main parties -- something that could soon come in useful for Johnson as the likelihood of snap elections grows.

An admirer of 19th-century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck and US fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd, Cummings appears to have deployed the latter's core philosophy of trying to confuse opponents by defying expectations.

In his first day in power, Johnson undertook an unexpectedly brutal cabinet reshuffle and has wrong-footed his opponents several times since then -- most notably with the decision to suspend parliament while most MPs were away on their summer break.

Johnson surprised his critics with another high-stakes gamble on Monday by warning he could call an early election if he is defeated in a parliament vote later on Tuesday.

Former finance minister Philip Hammond, a leading opponent of Johnson's Brexit strategy, on Tuesday said Cummings was not even a member of the Conservative Party and issued a thinly-veiled accusation against his leadership style.

"I am going to defend my party against incomers, entryists, who are trying to turn it from a broad church to narrow faction," he said.

"I intend to defend my party against them."

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