More than a year since walking out of Downing Street clutching his possessions in a cardboard box, Dominic Cummings has emerged in public again, recasting himself as a political speaker,
From No 10 to a lecture hall in the Darwin Building at University College London, the man who was once Boris Johnson’s senior adviser and de facto chief of staff, appeared on Thursday night in a panel discussion at the Orwell festival of political writing.
The subject, Bismarck and Political Power, is one with which he has quite a fascination. Indeed, the erstwhile political adviser turned creator of long Twitter threads and blog posts, told an audience of about 100 that today’s politicians could learn much from the Iron Chancellor.
“I think that studying Bismarck can help us improve the selection of people who go into politics who have crucial roles,” he said.
Readers of his blog will be familiar with Cummings’ fascination with Otto von Bismarck, who rose rapidly in Prussian politics and masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871, serving as its first chancellor until 1890.
Introduced by the panel chair as “that rare thing a political strategist of the first rank who became a political actor of the first rank”, Cummings spoke about Bismarck’s genius and political insight. Unable to resist mentioning his former boss, he told the audience that one of Bismarck’s strengths was he knew how to prioritise. “Now it’s absolutely normal in politics for those at the apex of power to be quite clueless about their priorities. Back in 2020 often several times a day Boris Johnson would trolley between, ‘we’ve got to save lives, we’ve got to save the economy’. Not week to week, not even day to day, sometimes several times in one meeting,” he said.
The panel discussion was part of the inaugural Orwell Festival of Political Writing 2022.
It marks a new role as public speaker for Cummings, who, post Downing Street, has sought to promote himself as a political commentator, Johnson critic in chief, and whistleblower extraordinaire, happy to supply context and gossip on everything from “wallpapergate” to Carrie Johnson, to ethics in general.
His fellow panellist, Anglo-German historian Katja Hoyer has previously discussed Cummings’ admiration for Bismarck.
Writing in the Spectator last year she said: “It is clear that Cummings seeks inspiration from the Iron Chancellor for his own political doings,” pointing out he quotes him extensively in his articles. She argued that Cummings’ fall from grace followed “a rather similar trajectory to the Bismarckian one”.
“Both were once deemed indispensable fonts of political wisdom. Both drew the ire of powerful enemies. Both left office as embittered men with giant political axes to grind,” she wrote.
She also wrote that Bismarck like Cummings ran into conflict “with the first lady at court” and that both men deemed themselves indispensable and “watched their own fall with astonishment and incredulity”.
Also speaking at the ticketed event was Sir Richard Evans, professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University and Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the FT.
The festival, the first of its kind, opened on Wednesday and will feature “some of the most powerful thinkers and newsmakers of recent times”, organisers said.
The festival culminates on 14 July in the announcement of the winners of this year’s Orwell prizes.
Prof Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation, said: “This first Orwell festival of political writing is an exciting new stage in the growth of the Orwell Foundation. The festival concentrates attention on the work of all of the finalists that our journalism and book prize judges have most valued. But it begins to open up tough discussions about things that matter with audiences.”