Newsmaker: Former Gove adviser Dominic Cummings attacks Number 10

Describing David Cameron as "bumbling" and Craig Oliver as "just clueless" seems to be in character for a man whom people describe as a "tribal" operator.

Education secretary Michael Gove: distanced himself from Dominic Cummings' interview
Education secretary Michael Gove: distanced himself from Dominic Cummings' interview

Dominic Cummings, who stepped down as special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove at the end of last year, caused a stir this week with an all-out offensive on the coalition Government in an interview with The Times.

Number 10 was criticised for lacking any strategic direction and the Prime Minister accused of holding back Gove's education reforms through his lack of support and sense of purpose.

Nick Clegg was singled out as "dishonest" and a "revolting character" who only cares about his image, while Cameron's director of comms Craig Oliver was described as "just clueless".

The reaction from Clegg, at his monthly press conference, was that Cummings had "delusions of grandeur" and his views were "totally irrelevant".

Cameron, speaking at a garden party hosted by Policy Exchange, suggested there is now a path from special adviser to "career psychopath", a comment that the media interpreted as being a reference to Cummings.

"It’s an unusual, ‘throwing your toys out of the pram’ approach," says Connect Communications chief executive Gill Morris of Cummings’ comments. "I don’t know if that’s in character. I don’t know what he’s trying to achieve by that other than unsettling the front bench."

Cummings' move looks more like a "lovers’ tiff" than anything more calculated, she suggests.

It is not clear what Cummings is currently doing or what his plans are. He told the press at the time of his resignation that he was interested in helping free schools and getting involved in other educational developments, suggesting he may now be focusing on his ideas about an "Odyssean" education, which he sets out in an essay on his blog.

His past work has not been limited to education. He worked as campaign director at Business for Sterling, an organisation campaigning against the UK’s adoption of the Euro, from 1999 to 2002. During this time he was introduced to Gove, then a journalist at The Times.

He went on to work as Conservative director of strategy under then leader Iain Duncan Smith and then as Gove’s chief of staff in opposition.

Following this he made the unusual career move of taking two years out to read up on philosophy in a bunker, before his return to Gove’s side as his special adviser following the 2010 general election.

The appointment was apparently met with internal opposition. "After the 2010 election Number 10 tried hard to stop him becoming Gove’s special adviser," says Hanover Communications founder Charles Lewington, suggesting that opposition came from Cameron’s then director of comms Andy Coulson and others.

The fact that Cummings did not start working with Gove until the end of 2010 suggests that they succeeded in keeping him out for a time.

"Dominic is one of the most tribal Conservatives I know. I remember when he was working for Michael in opposition, even then he was categorising organisations in education into friends and enemies," Lewington recalls.

"Coalition is about working with partners and not about kicking people’s ankles," he adds. "When he went I wasn’t surprised. Such aggressive operators can’t keep going without falling over themselves."

Gove is understood to have a close relationship with Cummings, although Gove’s aides have told the press that the Education Secretary had not known beforehand about his attack and did not agree with his views.

Cummings' actions mean it is unlikely he will return to Government, and Morris predicts that soon people will be saying "Dominic who?", but she adds that it has at least been "good to watch". "It’s good pre-shuffle sport," she says.

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