When Dominic Cummings gave his speech in Number 10’s Rose Garden about his April trip to Durham during the national Coronavirus lockdown, many eyebrows were raised. Not just at his statement (written by lawyers, says the Financial Times), that slalomed through the lockdown rules, but at the details of the supportive family of a man with the empathy of a monitor lizard.
Exactly what are the Durham ties that caused Cummings to seek panicked refuge there? How has the North East influenced his politics and career?
Dominic McKenzie Cummings is not from a rich family. He was born in the city of Durham on 25 November 1971, son of Robert Allen and Morag McDonald née Laws.
Morag’s parents were both doctors and after the war her father ran a GP practice in the pit village of Easington Lane. He died in 1961.
Morag attended the private Durham High School for Girls and became a teacher.
Morag’s brother Sir John Grant McKenzie Laws, Lord Justice of Appeal, had won a King’s Scholarship to private Durham School and then studied at Exeter College, Oxford. He died of Covid-19 on 5 April.
Dominic’s paternal grandfather Laurie set up Cummings Sports Outfitters shop in Durham City after the War with his de-mob payment.
The shop earned enough to send Dominic’s father Robert and his two brothers, Philip and Neil, to the private Barnard Castle School that their father had attended.
In his mixed career, Robert was a project manager on Laing’s oil rigs but in the mid-1990s he worked at Peterlee Glass Company Ltd as manager and director and held shares worth £15,000. Younger brother Neil was already a director, with a larger shareholding. Directors’ pay averaged at under £15,000.
Robert’s shareholding showed his home address as 32 Hallgarth St, a central Durham City terrace – 1840s, Grade 2 listed and five-bedroomed.
With the move in the late 1990s to North Lodge, Darlington Road on the outskirts of Durham, Robert joined Neil whose Farewell Hall Farm was to the north, and Phil with Elvet Farm to the south. His two brothers still own land on the other side of Darlington Road.
From 2000 to 2009, the three brothers received a total of £235,000 in EU farming subsidies The address they used for the grants was North Lodge Farm.
North Lodge is a five-bedroomed house on ex-Coal Board land, with the remains of a farmyard and a small copse.
According to Alex Tiffin on Black Isle Media, a breeze block building containing two cottages was built without planning permission, which Durham Council are currently investigating. There are also two apartments attached to the house.
North Lodge is co-owned by Dominic and his sister Francesca, who now lives there with her two daughters as well as her parents.
In 2017, Robert handed over the farm’s management to ex son-in-law Matthew Herriott in the shape of DAFTT Ltd, a company that is thought to own the land but at the time had fixed assets of £4,590 and current assets of just £9,312.
How much land farmer Robert has owned in the past is unclear. Herriott claims he still has one acre.
In 2013 Neil finished converting his barn into five houses with a loan from Barclays Bank.
Last year Phil and Neil lobbied Durham Council to break its Green Belt to allow the two brothers to build on their land.
Young Dominic went to a state primary school and, in the footsteps of Uncle John, attended Durham School.
Then to Exeter College, Oxford, again his maternal uncle’s Alma Mater. Regarded as a loner, he gained a First in Ancient and Modern History.
In the Oxford holidays Dominic collected money on the door of Uncle Phil’s Klute’s nightclub in central Durham, known for its ‘quaddies’ – quadruple shots. Robert helped run the club. In 1996, Klute’s was voted second worst nightclub in Europe by FHM. The worst, in Belgrade, was destroyed by fire soon after, leaving Klute’s as European worst by default. Dominic later set up a company called Klute Ltd in 2010, which was never active.
After Oxford, Dominic spent a few years in Russia, that graveyard of get-rich-quick schemes, including his airline that folded after one flight.
His next move was to the successful Business For Sterling campaign that opposed the European Single Currency and then to the post of Head of Strategy at Iain Duncan Smith’s Conservative Party (which he never joined). Within a year he was forced out by the enemies he’d made: Duncan Smith was “incompetent”.
Back at North Lodge, Cummings spent two and a half years living in the bunker he and his dad had built “reading science and history”.
Perhaps he was hoping to write a book as his Companies House details at the time described him as an “author”, although he has never published the grand oeuvre.
Instead, he wrote policy papers for the New Frontiers Foundation (NFF) which he set up in 2003 with friend James Frayn, his accountant sister as Company Secretary. The NFF had right-libertarian politics, including free trade, free market, and anti-government interference. It closed in 2005.
In 2004 Cummings moved to North East Says No – NESNO– that campaigned for the “No” vote in the referendum for an elected North East Regional Assembly.
Cummings followed the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) with two easy, false arguments: the money spent on more politicians could be spent on doctors; and the Assembly would raise Council Tax. In hindsight it could be Brexit: The Prequel.
NESNO also benefited from a donation-in-kind of consultancy services from UKIP.
The visual gimmicks of an inflatable white elephant and burning fake £50 notes worked.
“No” won 78% of the vote.
The landslide result killed off devolution hopes across the North: the later referendums for the North West and Yorkshire Regional Assemblies were cancelled.
The rest is rollercoaster history: hired and fired twice by Gove and Cameron respectively, the triumphs of Brexit and the General Election of December 2019. Throughout, Cummings developed twin reputations, as a brilliant master of the swing vote and as a bully devoid of people skills.
In 2011 Cummings made a new connection to the North East when he married Mary, daughter of Sir Humphry Wakefield of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. In 2016 their son Alexander Cedd was born.
Cummings also retained North East accountants for his companies, which include Dynamic Maps Ltd (activity: IT Consultancy Activities). They are all registered with Durham addresses. Often his registered director address has been the same as his sister’s accountant employers in Chester le Street.
As Chief Adviser to PM Boris Johnson since July last year, Cummings’ power and capacity for abusing it has intensified, adding to the already long rap sheet of an aide who has repeatedly stepped over the line.
There are the two non-tender contracts issued under emergency powers totalling nearly £1 million and going to small lobbyist firm Public First, run by Cummings’ friend James Frayne
And now we have a new policy that obliterates planning law and allows developers to build what and where they like.
Why did Cummings flee to Durham during lockdown, sick or well? Because home has always been his quarantine, from a world he is mostly at odds with.
The North East made Dominic Cummings. His family, small businessmen with a blind faith in private education and a loathing of any government “meddling” gave him his worldview.
This is the golden boy “clever one” who can only respond to dissent with aggression. Breaking rules and telling lies, reflect his desperate need to win at all costs.
The mechanics of winning the EU Referendum and last December’s General Election he learned in the North East Regional Assembly Referendum.
While Cummings wants to be remembered for his brilliant mind, he will be recalled as the one-trick-pony referendum winner, with the catchy slogans, novel advertising strategy and cheap untruths. Plus an abrasiveness that sabotaged his career.
Cummings remains tolerated for now because he can win elections. Like Coriolanus he is a great warrior but an awful politician, and like Coriolanus that will be his downfall.
As he left the Rose Garden after the press briefing, Dominic Cummings suddenly let out a laugh, quickly hidden with his briefing papers. Was this just a sign of relief? Or was it the “I got away with it” tell of the liar? Only Cummings knows. But as he walked away with the impunity of the political elite he purports to despise, public support for the national pandemic lockdown started to fall apart.
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