Dominic Cummings is a guy with vision

Matt Writtle
Matt Writtle

“I’m not wearing a political hat during this interview,” Peter Mandelson begins. Really? The New Labour founder, former deputy prime minister and business secretary, not discuss politics? Spoiler: in the end he can’t help himself.

After 35 minutes of non-stop talk about the Design Museum — of which he is chairman — barely consulting his handwritten notes, riding over my attempted questions like a monster truck, the Labour peer will pause, sip his hibiscus tea, and then agree to broach politics if the questions “touch on design”.

Fortunately, he finds a design angle in the exam grade algorithm (“bad design”), track and trace (“they’re going to struggle”), and even Number 10’s war with Whitehall (“Learn from us!”).

He finds the design angle on Dominic Cummings, chief strategist in No 10, who has been labelled at least as wicked as Mandelson once was, but whom he has never met, and on Cummings’s blogs, which he has read, and says — to my surprise — “whatever you might think or say about Dominic Cummings, he’s a guy with a vision”.

Dominic Cummings (AP)
Dominic Cummings (AP)

He has sympathy, too, for Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his efforts to handle the pandemic, all of which we will come to, but first: the Design Museum.

This is where Mandelson is going to direct his considerable energy, now that he is no longer in the engine room of the dead People’s Vote campaign. And boy does he have plans. Drawn in cartoon-form, the Design Museum would become a super-lair powerbase from which Mandelson will mastermind world domination. Or as he puts it: “I really, earnestly believe that design is going to be the greatest source of soft power for Britain in the rest of the world.”

We’ve met in his office here, across a table of gluten-free cakes. Mandelson is in a brushed-cotton shirt, looking, I notice today, a little like Jeremy Irons.

Design is not just music, fashion or film, Mandelson explains. It’s technology. It’s the internet, it’s mobile phones, 5G. It’s at the heart of manufacturing, medicine, AI. “New systems, new public services, new industrial processes. And cities. We’re going into a century of connectivity.”

Previous exhibitions here have included Stanley Kubrick’s films, Moving to Mars, Future Cities. From tomorrow, nine designers show how to maximise working from home in Connected.

Although underwritten by the Sir Terence Conran Foundation, the museum has lost 92 per cent of its income, which comes from visitors, to “the blessed virus”.

If the Government is going to put further money and investment into the museum sector, museums have to raise the bar in what they do

There’s been furloughing, pay cuts, trustee whip-rounds, and nearly £1 million in emergency funding from the Arts Council. In October they learn if they’ve won further arts funding. But, “[The Government] have said — and I agree — that if they’re going to put further money and investment into the museum sector, museums have to raise the bar in what they do.”

In response, Mandelson has devised the Future Observatory Programme, through which he hopes to transform the museum into an institutional octopus — “a hub of innovation, debate, learning, training, [a place] to bring the design industry much more centrally placed with public with policymakers, with investors with entrepreneurs,” with an ambition to have satellites across the country.

Because he is an optimist (we all have to be optimists, he says), he sees the “beastly” pandemic as time of not just trial, but of great opportunity: “The crisis has accelerated change.”

He talks of a new chapter in British history, of re-industrialising, “not in an old style, factory-based way, but in a much more sort of entrepreneurial, start-up way.”

Actually Mandelson has been talking about the new industrial revolution since 1998. In the Department of Trade and Industry, he authored the white paper Building a Knowledge-driven Economy (“basically wanted to bring the Silicon Valley to Britain”). As business secretary in 2009 he authored New Jobs, New Industry (“10 years later, Charlotte, we are among the front runners in life sciences in the world”).

And now the surprising bit. Mandelson says he was “very excited to learn that [Cummings] thinks one of the best things created in the last 10 years was the advanced manufacturing sectors in the Midlands and North. My era, my area.”

The ideas that come out of Cummings’ head are ones that I readily understand. There’s such an overlap

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Excited? “He and I politically obviously, are chalk and cheese. But the ideas that come out of his head are ones that I readily understand. There’s such an overlap.”

He cites Cummings’s “British Darpa” an advanced research unit, based on the American military research and development agency and says: “I wish I had done that. It’s basically the acme of what I was talking about, and would like to have done.” He “hears word” that these are the ideas talked about “within a small circle, or cell, at the heart of Whitehall the whole time”.

The problem, he says, is how insular Cummings and co are. They talk only to each other. “They think that if they’ve written a Spectator blog, or had a spread on page three of the Telegraph, that’s enough.”

Mandelson argues they need to open up the “seed bed”, widen the “talent pool”. If they really are in favour of what Cummings’s described as “weirdos and misfits” — “and I wouldn’t use that term, actually” — they need “new thinkers, left-field, out of the box; people who have different disciplines or come from different backgrounds.” For example: “Take it out of Whitehall to other institutions and stakeholders — like the Design Museum.” That’s what he did in his day. “That’s how a successful minister has to operate.”

He urges them to be less reluctant to engage with those outside the Brexit camp. “There’s a world out there which is different from them — not on their side politically, culturally.

“But you don’t have to have voted for this government or need to have been a Brexiter to want the country to succeed.”

We’re learning things every day about Covid but I really don’t know why they can’t get mass testing up and running

For this reason, he is sympathetic to Hancock’s changes of direction and doesn’t join in the criticism. “We’re learning things every single day [about the virus]. No minister in any government in which I’ve served has ever dealt with something so complex.” He pauses. “Having said that, I really don’t know why they can’t get mass testing up and running.”

Later he starts to say that there is “something awry in decision making” at the heart of government but then stops himself. Go on, what? “How can I put it? Something doesn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders.”

The only time he inflects his voice from an otherwise controlled monotone is when I ask about Cummings’s threat of a “hard rain” on the civil service. “We wanted to reform the civil service, we did that!” he cries. “We’ve been there! Learn from us! See how we did it successfully or less successfully than we would have liked. One thing I sometimes feel about this government, is that they operate as if they’re in a Year Zero.

The idea that the civil service is some institutionally dyed-in-the-wool bunch, who wake up every day in order to resist change, is wrong

“Many people have thought, tried, experimented and sought reform in the past. Build on what’s been done before, learn from mistakes, and then take it to a higher level. And by the way, you’ll find the civil service completely co-operative in that. The idea that the civil service is some institutionally dyed-in-the-wool bunch, who wake up every day in order to resist change, is wrong.”

He spent most of lockdown in Wiltshire and hasn’t had the virus, but his former adviser Derek Draper has been in intensive care for five months. Mandelson sighs heavily.

“I mean, Derek… Derek’s very survival has been a small miracle. People have had to think in a completely original way about the treatments he’s received. Well. But he’s not out of the woods.”

Draper is in a minimally conscious state. Mandelson, along with family, friends and former colleagues including Tony Blair, have kept up a stream of recordings played to him by nurses. “I love sending him messages,” says Mandelson. “I told him that like his old boss, he’s a fighter not a quitter.”

with Tony Blair (PA)
with Tony Blair (PA)

Under our feet in the throbbing basement is the exhibition Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers.

Mandelson says he saw the Chemical Brothers at Glastonbury last year. He calls them “that wonderful duo” in a soft voice that makes it sound as if they are Rodgers and Hammerstein. His own teenage years were not spent in long, cold queues to raves (he is another generation), but up amid the neat plots of Hampstead Garden Suburb, in a house that design-wise was “an eclectic mix” of Heals and Habitat. “I’m a child of Terence Conran,” he says. “Not literally.”

The music he listened to was classical. His mother improvised an “early Sonos” by trailing a wire from the sitting room to the room where he did his homework.

“She would change the records, through the evening. I would have waves of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius, occasionally Elgar.”

She “recognised her son’s flair”, his “design gene” as he calls it, allowing him to redecorate his bedroom at about 14, not minding when he decided on, “bright blue curtains with a with a William Morris print lurking in them, and a bright orange carpet. It was a statement.”

On the wall he hung not posters of Sixties heartthrobs, but museum prints. He wore her knitted jerseys. Of a battleship grey with cable-knit, he says: “I still had that when I went to Hartlepool [his constituency] in the Nineties.”

I haven’t mellowed. I’m an activist

Has he mellowed over the years? He looks close to horrified and asks what on earth it means to mellow. “I’m a doer. I’m a progressive. I want things to be better, improved,” he says. “I haven’t mellowed. I’m an activist.”

What came next for Peter’s friends

Jonathan Powell
Blair’s chief of staff. Founded the charity Inter Mediate to work on armed conflicts around the world.

Jack Straw
Blair’s home and foreign secretary retired in 2015. His son Will headed the Remain campaign in the referendum.

Catherine Rimmer
Loyal Downing Street aide who went on to run Blair’s company Windrush.

David Blunkett
Stepped down from the Commons in 2015 and shortly after became a life peer and chairman of the University of Sheffield’s law school.

Alastair Campbell
Daily Mirror political editor turned spin doctor is now a prolific author, ambassador for mental health charities, and prolific on Twitter.

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