Opinion: Understanding Johnson’s chief strategist
The puppeteer of Brexit is back.
In a somewhat paradoxical return, the renowned hater of Westminster politics has entered full force into the party scene. Handed the power to direct policymaking, Cummings has now been appointed the Prime Minister’s key adviser, charged with delivering Brexit by October 31st.
Savvy, eccentric and outspoken, Cummings has proved himself the ideal craftsman for a political campaign. Conditioning the electorate into defying the euro; opposing northeast devolution and exiting the European Union, the former campaign director certainly knows the artistry of winning a referendum.
A campaign mastermind
And Brexit was his masterpiece. Winning him his mastermind title, Cummings choreographed the deep psychological matrix of the Vote Leave campaign in June 2016. Outmanoeuvring the Remain campaign, Cummings translated public opinion into seductive messages, conjuring the mantra ‘Take Back Control’; swindling the electorate through targeted adverts and channelling the thoughts of dozens of focus groups.
The campaign strategy was simple – “don’t talk about immigration, do talk about business; don’t make the referendum final; do keep mentioning the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the over-reach of the European Union’s Court of Justice”.
Using this blueprint, Vote Leave served over 1 billion Facebook adverts, spending over £2.7million on targeted ads. Public qualms became slogans, with the possibility of Turkish membership and the inflated figure of £350m a week to the EU thrown into Cummings’ masterplan.
Mastermind, or just corrupt PR figure?
But, not all would call him a mastermind – even the strategist himself.
“I am not clever, I have a hopeless memory, and have almost no proper ‘circle of competence’”. In a revealing piece for The Spectator in 2017, Cummings diluted claims of genius. The piece offered a brutally honest, modest and comprehensive account of his role within Vote Leave. According to his column, Cummings main responsibility was management, and the team simply got lucky.
Some brand Cummings not as a mastermind but an unethical propagandist. Not only did he back sophistry like extra funding for the NHS, Vote Leave has been accused of working with controversial consulting firms such as Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ. Cambridge Analytica alone have been accused of illegally harvesting the personal information of 50 million Facebook users, building a labyrinth of electorate data. Cummings even failed to respond to a parliamentary order to partake in a fake news inquiry, landing him in contempt of parliament just four months ago.
A different kind of strategist
Whether you think Cummings is a master campaign strategist or just a shady spin-doctor, he’s certain to have an impact. Deploying psychological tactics and online intelligence, Cummings just thinks in a different way to the average Westminster politician.
Never having been a member of a political party, Cummings has routinely denounced the Westminster system as broken and archaic. At a conference in 2017, the technocrat launched a bitter diatribe against the Conservatives, claiming “Tory MPs do not care about…poorer people. They don’t care about the NHS.”
And it’s not just the Tories. According to Cummings, Parliament itself consists of people who “to a large extent are not particularly bright, are egomaniacs and they want to be on TV”, blindly motivated by selection processes and incentive structures.
Without the suasion of party politics, Cummings will represent a new kind of strategist, anathema to Westminster. Maybe it will be refreshing to see Brexit analysed without strong partisan pressure, truly focused on national interest – or maybe Cummings will simply become Johnson’s pawn, aiming for and achieving any kind of Brexit, without much care for its aftermath. After all, he helped propel us out of the EU, all the while thinking it was a “dumb idea”, and any future Brexit negotiations a “guaranteed debacle”.
All we know is, when given a target, Cummings aims fire. And Johnson’s target is to leave the EU by Halloween, deal or not. Equipped with psychological mastery; social media tactics and deep cognisance of public opinion, we must brace for Cummings’ impact. The puppeteer is back, and he’s certain to start pulling our strings again.