Dominic Cummings, the chief special adviser to the prime minister, recently advertised for “weirdos and misfits” to join him in Downing Street. The first of those appears to be 27-year-old Andrew Sabisky. Mr Sabisky has no academic research of note to his name. He was educated at home but also attended private schools. From a well-off family, he hardly fits Mr Cummings’ call for “true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole”. Mr Sabisky is a rightwing provocateur who promotes ideas about eugenics cloaked in the sham argument that this is hard science. It speaks volumes about the arrogance of Downing Street that Boris Johnson won’t dump Mr Sabisky – or even disassociate himself from his views which are routinely found in the darker, damper recesses of the internet. You cannot have such people in government unless you mean to give the impression that you agree with them.
Mr Johnson’s team has gone out of its way to back Mr Sabisky. When the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said that Mr Sabisky’s comments were “not my views and those are not the views of the government” he was slapped down by Downing Street’s press operation. Mr Sabisky, like Mr Cummings, has no formal training in the fields that they both claim to understand. Earlier this month Mr Johnson claimed that his government “will be governed by science and not by mumbo-jumbo”. Hiring this individual is evidence that this is not true. If Mr Johnson or Mr Cummings wanted expertise in genetics then why not ask a scientist to advise Downing Street? The reason is that the prime minister’s adviser is not interested in exploring the dilemmas presented by diverging fundamental beliefs or those informed by scientific facts. He is interested in weaponising such debates for political gain.
Mr Cummings made his name by leading the team that won the 2016 Brexit referendum, writing that his opponents were “grotesque incompetents” who lost despite commanding the machinery of the state. He claims that Whitehall displays a groupthink so strong that officials strive for unanimity rather than realistically appraise alternative courses of action. He is looking therefore for “true cognitive diversity”. But if this were the case why does Mr Cummings hire people in his own image – privately educated rightwingers with no track record outside of politics and who are dazzled by science but have backgrounds in the humanities? Again, the reason is that this is all about pursuing a strategy of purposeful polarisation.
The worry is that this is the thin edge of a thick wedge. Mr Cummings seems intent on building a press operation in Downing Street which can dismiss criticism of controversial political actions as merely partisan dissent. That is why it is important for Conservative MPs, such as former minister Caroline Nokes to speak out. Without these voices, Mr Cummings will be able to break traditional ethical boundaries. We are already seeing this with the “delay-and-deflect” tactics to questions about who paid for the prime minister’s £15,000 holiday to Mustique.
Mr Cummings is no uniter. He is a divider. He wants to build a political stronghold with aggressive polarising strategies – on cultural, scientific and economic grounds – to strengthen allies and weaken opponents. The growing evidence is that Mr Johnson keeps Mr Cummings close because, while he wants to maintain the rhetorical pretence of “bringing the country together”, he in fact intends to pursue a cynical politics of provocation and division.