Cummings is no longer the shadowy figure that outflanked David Cameron’s Downing Street/Stronger In media machine in 2016.
These days he struts the corridors of Whitehall as Boris Johnson’s all-powerful senior adviser.
While he still avoids the cameras, he nonetheless appears on TV news, having been denounced in the Commons by sacked Conservative MP Margot James, and publicly scalded as an “unelected foul-mouth oaf” by veteran Tory Sir Roger Gale.
Maverick genius or fictitious wizard?
He is an increasingly familiar figure in trademark gilet and crumpled linen shirt, but with little sign of the passion of Cumberbatch’s impersonation in the Channel 4/HBO film Brexit: The Uncivil War, which told the story of the pivotal impact of Cummings’s digitally-propelled slogan “Let’s Take Back Control”.
The coming election will help us to understand whether he deserved characterisation as a maverick genius, or if the Doctor Strange actor awarded him fictitious powers.
The Prime Minister is clearly in awe of his chief aide. But the digital media landscape that was Cummings’s primary battlefield three years ago has changed. Facebook, which was Vote Leave’s go-to platform in the Referendum campaign, has had a torrid time in the intervening period.
The social site has undergone a crisis in trust that has seen its CEO Mark Zuckerberg hauled before Congress and the company described as “digital gangsters” by a committee of British MPs for its failure to address concerns over fake news and disinformation. The scandal of Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook personal data for targeted advertising in the Brexit and Trump campaigns has exposed the dark side of digital politics.
The public now has a clearer understanding of how easily voters can be manipulated. Or at least it should have if it has been paying attention.
Social media relevance
Facebook is also struggling to retain its relevance for young people, who increasingly see it as anachronistic, and turn instead to Instagram and Snapchat. The upcoming election, in which the Brexit arguments will be re-run possibly for the last time, gives a vote to those 15-17-year-olds who complained in 2016 that their destinies were decided without them being given a say.
Young people in general were under-represented at the referendum and their engagement (or lack of it) in the next vote could be the deciding factor. A report produced last week by the Reuters Institute suggests that under-35s differ markedly from previous generations in their relationship to news and current affairs. “Consuming news can often feel like a chore,” said the report’s authors of millennial consumers.
While older demographics have been prepared to passively imbibe a news agenda defined by front page headlines and the “bongs” that introduce the TV bulletins, younger users adopt a personal stance towards news.
“[They are] primarily driven by progress and enjoyment in their lives and this translates into what they look for in news,” says the study. “It’s about what it can do for them as individuals – rather than for society as a whole.”
These findings have profound importance for the future of traditional news brands, which will have a significant role to play in the election campaign and its aftermath. While it is fashionable to dismiss Fleet Street as a Twentieth Century force, the fact is that these traditional news brands wield enormous digital reach and influence (reaching 47 per cent of the British population daily).
Young people put off by negativity
The popular press seems aware of the Reuters Institute finding that “young people are put off by relentlessly negative news” and is becoming less reliant on shock tactics and bile. Daily Express editor Gary Jones has consciously moved the paper away from immigration scare stories, a marked shift from its output in 2016. Geordie Greig’s Daily Mail has published only three immigration splashes in the year since he took over.
The paper, once lampooned for attributing carcinogenic qualities to every foodstuff in the fridge, has launched a campaign to position itself as the home of factual health coverage, backed by an expert panel of chefs and doctors.
Dominic Cummings is surely preparing to unleash a fresh media campaign to ensure that his Vote Leave success does not go unrewarded. But he will have to operate in a new world where social media giants are more resistant to being used as vehicles for political propaganda, and where the popular press is more wary of being damned for bigotry and lies.
Toxic memes about surges of refugees and the imminent admission of Turkey into the European Union are not going to get the same traction this time round. Brexit’s puppet master will have to have some other ideas up those crumpled sleeves.