Dominic Cummings: Johnson ally turned bomb-throwing foe

London (AFP) –

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Brexit mastermind Dominic Cummings, the notoriously combative former top adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is not shirking his latest fight -- but this time has the UK leader himself in his sights.

Cummings, 49, had lain low after acrimoniously quitting Downing Street in December. But on Friday, he returned with a bang, releasing a 1,100-word blog that detailed a series of explosive allegations against the Conservative leader.

Commentators said Johnson should have seen it coming, after reportedly briefing newspaper editors last week to accuse Cummings of being behind a drip-feed of incriminating leaks.

"He (Cummings) is a man who takes nuclear weapons to a pillow fight. He has had months to copy emails and messages. There are rumours he has audio recordings," Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman wrote.

"Johnson's (poll) numbers remain buoyant. But voters hate chaos and division and Tory MPs dislike melodrama," he added.

Chaos, division and drama are Cummings' disruptive speciality. With Johnson as the charismatic front-man, he was the strategist behind the "Vote Leave" campaign that saw Britain narrowly vote in 2016 to quit the European Union.

Cummings was portrayed sympathetically by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV dramatisation of the seismic referendum.

But his aggressive tactics, including an infamous campaign bus emblazoned with a questionable promise of funding for healthcare, made him a hate figure for Brexit opponents.

- Cross-country lockdown drive -

Former Conservative prime minister David Cameron called Cummings a "career psychopath", and he was unpopular with many MPs from the ruling party and even staunch Brexiteers.

Cummings caused outrage last year for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules that he had helped to draft, making a cross-country dash while suffering from Covid-19 symptoms after his wife had contracted the virus.

He refused to resign, and Johnson refused to sack him, despite ridicule and derision at his claim he had undertaken one drive because he needed to check his eyesight.

Furious people who stuck to the rules -- in some cases missing a chance to say a final goodbye to loved ones who died from the virus or attend their funerals -- accused him of hypocrisy.

Johnson hired Cummings after he became prime minister in July 2019, when the government was bogged down in negotiations to leave the EU and parliament was unable to agree on a divorce deal.

He hoped Cummings' reputation for unconventional and bold action would help break the deadlock -- and the move paid off spectacularly.

Johnson called a snap election in December 2019 and secured an 80-seat parliamentary majority, setting the seal on Brexit.

Johnson entrusted Cummings with his ambitious big-spending plans to modernise the economy and state, giving him unprecedented powers as an aide.

But that agenda has been overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak, and Cummings himself fell victim in December to a Downing Street feud involving Johnson's fiancee, Conservative Party insider Carrie Symonds.

- 'Weirdos and misfits' -

Cummings famously sent out a call for "weirdos and misfits" to join his policy unit, driven by science geeks and "artists" as a direct challenge to civil service control.

His dress sense -- more Silicon Valley than Westminster -- earned him the title of the world's worst-dressed man from GQ Magazine, which said he looked like "an unlicensed cab driver".

Oxford University-educated Cummings, the son of an oil-rig worker and a teacher, began as a government adviser to then-education minister Michael Gove, following a stint working in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s.

He locked horns immediately with the civil service, and later relished verbal jousts with Tory politicians after the referendum.

Now, after his blog post accused Johnson of unethical and potentially illegal behaviour, he is promising to tell all to a parliamentary committee on May 26, "for as long as the MPs want".

Downing Street denies wrongdoing, but the main opposition Labour party scents blood.

"Who cares whether Johnson is lying or Cummings is lying?" Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said.

"What matters is that instead of governing in the interests of the people, they are fighting childish games and running a government of sleaze."