Standing on a table in a nondescript tower block overlooking the river Thames, Dominic Cummings punched a hole in the ceiling as he yelled at Vote Leave activists: “We’re taking back control.”
It was the early hours of June 24 2016 and the TV networks had just declared a majority in the Brexit referendum had voted to take the UK out of the EU, securing his campaign victory against the massed ranks of the political and business establishment.
But this week control slipped through Mr Cummings’ fingers after a bruising Downing Street power battle.
The 48-year-old is one of the most controversial figures in postwar UK politics. A hate figure for many so-called Remainers, the former leader of the Vote Leave campaign and, many years earlier, the campaign director of the anti-euro Britain for Sterling is a hero to Eurosceptics.
Yet Mr Cummings is not even a member of the Conservative party. “There’s a case that Dom is the most influential Tory of the past two decades: stopping us joining the euro, Brexit, last year’s election victory. He’s driven all of these campaign successes and he’s not even a Tory,” said one senior party figure.
It was a surprise when Boris Johnson chose Mr Cummings to be his chief adviser after becoming prime minister in July 2019.
Yet the appointment had an instinctive logic. Mr Johnson is someone who craves popularity and shies away from difficult choices: he found in Mr Cummings a single-minded decision maker who thrived on animosity.
Mr Cummings also had an ideological vision for the Johnson government, vowing to take on the media and conjure a “hard rain” against the civil service. He also promised a new economic approach that would “level up” the “left-behind” regions of the country.
Tory MPs distrusted him and he in turn mostly despised them, describing former Brexit secretary David Davis as “thick as mince” and “lazy as a toad”.
He packed Downing Street with other loyal veterans from the Vote Leave campaign and told advisers: “If you don’t like how I run things, there’s the door. Fuck off.” One early victim was Sonia Khan, a Treasury aide, who on Friday won an out-of-court settlement over her brutal sacking.
In the late summer of 2019, Mr Cummings drew up the high-stakes strategy of threatening a no-deal Brexit to try to force the EU to agree an exit deal. His plan to “prorogue” parliament for five weeks prompted widespread outrage.
He was also behind the move to kick 21 rebel Tory MPs out of the party — including two former chancellors and Winston Churchill’s grandson — for supporting parliamentary moves to undermine the prime minister’s Brexit strategy.
Yet his allies believe his no-prisoners approach was vindicated: a deal to take the UK out of the EU was ultimately struck with Brussels — even though a trade deal is still up in the air — and the Tories went on to win a general election landslide.
This year, after securing the UK’s exit from the EU, he had hoped to focus on a domestic “levelling-up” agenda designed to keep the 58 new seats gained in December’s election. Instead he found his priorities dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, becoming an early advocate for the spring lockdown.
Some always thought his time in Number 10 would be shortlived. A previous foray as a special adviser for Michael Gove in the Department for Education was swiftly curtailed in 2013. David Cameron, who was the Tory prime minister at the time, dubbed him a “career psychopath”.
Indeed Mr Cummings himself wrote in January in one his many lengthy, personal blogs that he hoped to make himself “largely redundant” after Brexit is finalised at the end of December.
Yet confirmation of his departure still came as a relief in Whitehall where one official said Mr Cummings had created a “horrible atmosphere”.
Mr Cummings has worked closely with Mr Gove — now Cabinet Office minister — on overhauling the civil service with the promotion of what he described as “weirdos and misfits”.
His unorthodox approach has claimed the scalps of six permanent secretaries. One senior mandarin said there was an “aftermath” feeling on Friday. “People are trying to work out what this all means and what comes next.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil service union, said Mr Johnson should take the blame for the poisonous atmosphere his chief aide had created in Whitehall. “Everything [Mr Cummings] did — the briefings, the intimidation, the climate of fear, was done with the PM’s express authority. The big question now is whether that will change.”
Mr Cummings has also been widely blamed for undermining the public’s trust in the government during the pandemic. He upended the Westminster motto that special advisers should never “become the story” when it was reported that he had breached the spirit of coronavirus lockdown rules in early spring by driving to his native County Durham with his family.
At a time when most people were banned from all but essential travel, the revelation prompted widespread outrage.
It is not clear that Mr Cummings’ time in Whitehall is entirely over. His WhatsApp profile reads: “Get Brexit Done, then Arpa” — a reference to Britain’s new science agency, implying he would love a senior job at his pet project.
Some of his allies believe he will spend some time in County Durham, writing blogs and reading books on physics “until he returns to government again,” said one, adding: “Never write Dom off.”