February 24, 2016 in The Evening Standard
Last week, as news broke that Michael Gove stepped over the threshold of Boris Johnson’s house to have a private dinner, Dominic Cummings would have been purring. The Vote Leave campaign, of which Cummings is director, needed as many senior Tories as he could muster to break with their pack and follow their Euroscepticism for him to pull off his audacious coup of winning an Out vote in the referendum. Boris was the prize.
Over in the Stronger In campaign, its director Will Straw was finalising with No 10 the letter that would appear in The Times on Tuesday: some 36 FTSE 100 companies, including Burberry, BAE Systems, drinks giant Diageo, and Prudential had signed up to say publicly that “leaving the EU would deter investment, threaten jobs and put the economy at risk”. Straw was going to play the numbers, both in the economy and the weight of business.
Both Straw and Cummings might be backroom boys but they will be key players in this referendum. Two men more unalike you may not meet.
Straw, the son of former MP Jack Straw, is described by friends as “able”, “likeable”, “affable” and many other -ables. He could be dismissed as one of the Red Princes, the second generation of Labour children who have been given a hands-up into politics, but actually he has grafted away. Cautioned for offering to sell drugs to an undercover journalist when he was 17 and his father Home Secretary, he subsequently become exemplary as a civil servant, as a think-tank leader, an MP hopeful, and now as an executive director of Stronger In.
It would be difficult to say the same of Cummings, the controversial former special adviser to Gove. Intense, iconclastic, verbose, he is described by one who has followed his career as the Tory Che Guevara: “He believes in things but to extremes.” In his wake lie the bodies with whom he has argued.
He had a spectacular falling out with Iain Duncan Smith, to whom he was serving as head of strategy, in 2003, resigning and denouncing him as “incompetent” in an article in The Telegraph. He went on to befriend Gove who, on becoming Education Secretary, requested him as his SpAd. David Cameron’s then press secretary Andy Coulson balked at his appointment. And, most recently, the board at Vote Leave has tried to have him removed from his own campaign. Even the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, has more friends than Cummings, it seems.
But Cummings has was what Straw does not, a kind of mad genius that both infuriates and compels people to listen to him. When Gove or Boris Johnson start talking sovereignty or hinting at second referendums, it is all already in Cummings’s playbook.
Straw met him for their first public debate against each other in the autumn, at an event hosted by the Spectator, and noted something unusual in his enemy.
“I’ve enjoyed reading his blog,” said Straw. “This is the first time where I’ve been involved where the other side’s political strategy has been so freely available. I do hope you keep it up, Dominic.”
That is because Cummings has an irrepressible urge to show off his intellect, in writing and interviews and blogging, outlining how he thinks he could penetrate the defences of a Cameron-led campaign to remain. Think of a football manager who has analysed the other side and then compulsively declares exactly what he intends to do.
Among his key points, currently being played out are:
Don’t talk about immigration: half the country feel it, so they don’t need to be sold on it; the other half of potential voters will become squeamish.
Do talk about business: split the business community, big and small. If they all come out for Cameron, the game is over as people will think jobs will be lost; if they split, it is a different matter.
Don’t make the referendum final: an Out vote doesn’t mean an automatic trigger of Article 50: it is space for more manoeuvre.
Do keep mentioning the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the over-reach of the European Union’s Court of Justice: it plays to the heart of our idea of sovereignty.
While Cummings is, one imagines, locked in his study reading up on visionary politics and radical economics, only to explode with ideas when his wife, the Spectator’s commissioning editor Mary Wakefield, walks in, Straw is more of a family man, jigging his young son on his knee.
“He’s being a modern father,” says a friend. “That’s why you don’t see him out so much.” And when he does, he is glad-handing established business lobbies.
At the Spectator debate, Cummings came up with an all-encompassing vision of a newly technologically advanced and humanly mobile world, while Straw spoke in bullet points on the advantages of the EU in every man’s pocket. It is worth £3,000 to every family, is the line he trots out. Thatcher’s rebate means Cummings’s figures are wrong, we won’t get as preferable trade deals. Numbers, numbers.
What Straw’s approach can’t stop is the guerrilla tactics, for example Vote Leave assisting students who protested at the Confederation of British Industry conference addressed by David Cameron in November. They shouted “CBI, voice of Brussels”, a direct attack on an organisation that was claiming to speak for big business, and which Cummings loathes. See playbook above.
Nor does Straw have much ammunition when Gove, Cummings’s old boss, and Boris Johnson, armed with the detail for arguments from his barrister wife Marina Wheeler about the loss of sovereignty, take aim at the European Union’s Court of Justice and the Charter, not fully addressed by David Cameron’s deal. It is another riff of Cummings’s. (The Charter is worth reading, if only for its agreeableness.)
Cummings leads his campaign with the call to action “Vote Leave, Take Control”, the sort of slogan one might find in a military training camp. Straw’s website — in Union Jack colours — runs with “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be out on our own”, in perfect British understatement.
Yet where Cummings commands he also divides. Gove appeared in front of Vote Leave posters, and Boris, speaking on his doorstep on Sunday, said: “I will be advocating Vote Leave — or whatever the team is called — I understand there are many of them.” Others do so rather more reluctantly. Bernard Jenkin, also on the board of Vote Leave, is the one who tried to oust Cummings, with a plan of merging with the rival Ukip-driven Leave.Eu campaign (both are currently vying to have the lead status as the Out campaigners from the electoral commission and the accompanying bigger spending power). Iain Duncan Smith seems to have reluctantly placed himself with Vote Leave, after initially saying he wouldn’t align himself.
One of the strengths for Straw in the coming months is that Stronger In finally has something more to chew on now that the details of Cameron’s deal have come through. And while he doesn’t have the genius spark of his rival, the one thing on Straw’s side is, paradoxically, Dominic Cummings. “Dominic is so divisive,” says one former colleague. “As long as he’s there, it is only a matter of time before it all goes wrong.”
Dominic Cummings, 44
Family values: Married Mary Wakefield, commissioning editor of the Spectator, in 2011
Education: Durham School (private); ancient and modern history at Exeter College, Oxford
1994: Moved to Russia where he set up an airline flying from Samara to Vienna
1997: Campaign director at Business for Sterling where he helped persuade Blair against the euro
2002: Briefly Director of Strategy for Iain Duncan Smith
2003: Andy Coulson blocks his appointment as government adviser
2010-end of 2013: Michael Gove’s SpAd
October 2015: Vote Leave launches with Cummings as executive director
Fellow Outers: Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Zac Goldsmith, John Whittingdale
Will Straw, 35
Family values: Married to Claire Straw, communications for Bill Gates Foundation; they have a two-year-old son, Matthew, and live in Kennington.
His father is former Labour MP Jack Straw and his mother is Alice Perkins, Chairman of the Post Office Ltd
Education: Pimlico School (comp); PPE at
New College, Oxford
2009: Founded Left Foot Forward
2010: Joined Institute of Public Policy Research
2015: Stood for MP in Rossendale and Darwen; Lord Oakeshott donated £10,000 to the campaign. Lost to Tory Jake Berry
July 2015: Appointed executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe
Fellow Inners: Jeremy Corbyn, Stuart Rose, Alan Johnson, David Cameron, Theresa May