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  1. ITV Report

The US fighter pilot inspiring Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser

Dominic Cummings (left) entering Number 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA
  • By ITV News Political Correspondent Joe Pike

We’ll leave the EU, then "smash" Jeremy Corbyn.

That is how Dominic Cummings - chief adviser to Boris Johnson and former Vote Leave boss - is said to have summed up the government’s strategy in a meeting with colleagues last night.

The appointment last month of the ruthless and furiously bright Cummings to the heart of Number 10 resulted in far more raised eyebrows and dropped jaws than any of the big Cabinet promotions.

After all, who cares who is running a government department when this guy is running the whole show.

Dominic Cummings’ reputation for obsessiveness, impatience and having a long list of enemies is remarkably similar to that of the American military strategist who Cummings cites as an inspiration.

Dominic Cummings (right) as Boris Johnson meets Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill as he arrives in 10 Downing Street. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images
  • Genghis John

Colonel John Boyd was a fighter pilot - some say the greatest in US history. Nicknamed 'The Mad Major' and 'Genghis John', his greatest work took place after he stopped flying.

Boyd’s studies into aerial combat transformed how US military aircraft were designed. His theories about warfare and conflict remain influential today even outside the defence community.

Yet it was his character, his idiosyncrasies, and his disruptive influence that make him particularly fascinating.

In one internal report, Boyd was described by a superior as "an intense and impatient man who does not respond well to close supervision… He possesses a lot of nervous energy."

Colonel John Boyd also known as the 'The Mad Major' and 'Genghis John'. Credit: US Government

In his gripping 2002 biography, journalist Robert Coram argues Boyd was "incapable of compromise" and did not see "the dangers inherent in-deliberately seeking conflict with others."

He was a warrior and those conforming to the status quo were his enemies. The swollen unwieldy bureaucracy of the Pentagon was contaminated with careerism and therefore something to fight against. ‘There was nothing Boyd loved more than a good skunk fight. It kept the juices flowing.’

He never reached the rank of General, but Boyd achieved far more than most of his superiors. He did it by battling the military hierarchy and forcing change.

  • Battling the blob
Dominic Cummings giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in 2016. Credit: PA

Cummings is best known for battling a different bureaucracy: the British educational establishment.

While advising then Education Secretary Michael Gove during the coalition government, the minister’s team termed their enemies in the civil service and academia "The Blob".

Cummings and Boyd also share an obsession with education and learning. Where Boyd taught himself engineering and philosophy, Cummings reads history and taught himself maths to A-level standard.

Both men have fought throughout their careers and survived:repeatedly out-flanking their critics and fending off attempts to marginalise them. They are both known for dressing scruffily: when Johnson first arrived at Number 10 as PM, Cummings was spotted hovering in the background in a t-shirt and jeans.

Both men have demonstrated a relentless unwillingness to conform, to fit in and to accept the status quo.

  • The Choice

Boyd was well known for delivering a stark pep talk to young officers who joined his team. It was known as his "to be or to do" speech.

He argued the officer would soon be at a fork in the road in his career, and must make a choice. That choice was between careerism and idealism, between being somebody and actually doing something.

The first route would mean compromise, but it would lead to promotion, prospects, job titles, joining ‘the club’. Careerists fear change and are promoted for not challenging the status quo.

The second road was more tricky but more noble. It might mean not being liked, battling with authority,but keeping your ideals in tact.

For Cummings, David Cameron was a prime example of someone who took the wrong path Credit: PA

There was an opportunity to achieve something far more valuable for your country and humanity than a grand job title.

For Cummings, David Cameron was a prime example of someone who took the wrong path. As well as describing the former Prime Minister as "bumbling" and a "sphinx without a riddle", he wrote in 2017: "I thought that he was in politics for bad reasons - essentially because he was someone who wanted "To Be", not someone who wanted "To Do".

It is unclear which of those paths Cummings believes Johnson has chosen.

The current PM’s dogged focus over many decades on reaching Number 10 could suggest the latter.

The strategist’s current lack of a clear job title exemplifies this mindset of doing, not just being. Normally the prime minister’s most senior political adviser is his or her Chief of Staff.

But for Cummings there is not a clearly defined role. Journalists usually plump for "senior aide" or "chief adviser".

There is no great rush to clarify either: for Dominic Cummings, there are far bigger priorities than job titles.

  • Legacy
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings 'Brexit - The Uncivil War'. Credit: Channel 4

One final attribute that John Boyd and Dominic Cummings share is their keen awareness of their own mythology.

Where Boyd was keen to tell war stories, Cummings has blogged about his achievements.

His role in the Brexit referendum has already been immortalised by Benedict Cumberbatch in James Graham’s acclaimed TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Now Dominic Cummings is facing his biggest battle: pitting himself against the European Union and the UK civil service to deliver Brexit by October 31.

There is one certainty: Cummings will have acquired many more enemies by then.