Dominic Cummings: UK PM's top aide never far from controversy

London (AFP) –

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Dominic Cummings became British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top adviser after helping to secure the shock 2016 Brexit referendum win and orchestrating a stunning election success for the Conservatives three years later.

But his combative tactics and abrasive personality made him enemies across the political spectrum, stoking reports this week that he will quit the government next month.

His departure would bring the curtain down on a tumultuous period at the heart of British politics for a man who in large part helped shape the country's geopolitical future.

Cummings was the mastermind behind the campaign that saw Britain narrowly vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.

He was portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV dramatisation of the seismic referendum which divided the nation and led to years of crippling political infighting.

His aggressive campaigning tactics, including an infamous Brexit campaign bus emblazoned with a questionable promise of funding for healthcare, made him a hate figure for Brexit opponents.

Former Conservative prime minister David Cameron called him a "career psychopath", and he was unpopular with many MPs from the ruling party and even staunch Brexiteers.

- Accused of hypocrisy -

Cummings caused outrage earlier this year for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules that he helped to draft, making a cross-country journey while suffering from Covid-19 symptoms and after his wife had contracted the virus.

He refused to resign, and Johnson refused to sack him, despite ridicule at his claim he drove because he needed to check his eyesight.

Cummings' electoral successes were partly built on tapping into widespread frustrations with the political classes, and his own disdain for political journalists and the wider media.

But for a man claiming to be more in touch with the public, he misjudged the mood by defending his 250-mile (400-kilometre) trip from London to be near his family in Durham, northeast England.

People who stuck to the rules -- in some cases missing a chance to say a final goodbye to loved ones who died from the virus or attend their funerals -- were furious and accused him of hypocrisy.

Johnson hired Cummings after he become prime minister in July 2019, when the government was bogged down in its attempts to leave the European Union and parliament was unable to agree on a divorce deal.

He hoped his reputation for unconventional and bold action would help him break the deadlock -- and the move paid off spectacularly.

Johnson called a snap election in December and secured an 80-seat parliamentary majority, setting the seal on Britain's departure from the European Union in January.

Cummings' reported departure will coincide with the end of an 11-month transition period, and the real start of the country's post-Brexit future.

- 'Weirdos and misfits' -

Johnson entrusted Cummings with his ambitious big-spending plans to modernise the economy and state, giving him unprecedented powers as an aide.

But that agenda has been overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak.

Cummings, 48, famously sent out a call for "weirdos and misfits" to join his policy unit, driven by science geeks and "artists" as a direct challenge to civil service control.

His dress sense -- more Silicon Valley than Westminster -- earned him the title of the world's worst-dressed man from GQ Magazine, which said he looked like "an unlicensed cab driver".

Oxford University-educated Cummings, the son of an oil-rig worker and a teacher, began as a government adviser to then-education minister Michael Gove, following a stint working in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s.

He locked horns immediately with the civil service, which he dubbed the "blob" for resisting his reform plans that one commentator described as "either mad, bad or brilliant".

But it was during the 2016 referendum campaign that he made his name, although he was contemptuous of many of those campaigning alongside him.

He called leading Tory Brexit supporter David Davis "thick as mince" and "lazy as a toad" while anti-EU figurehead Nigel Farage said he "had huge personal enmity with the true believers in Brexit".