Dame Hilary Mantel has said Dominic Cummings “created a picture of himself as an outsider” that was intrinsic to his rise, while Thomas Cromwell had been able to truly “conquer the hierarchy”.
The novelist, 69, who has published a trilogy of books about Cromwell, concluding with The Mirror and the Light in 2020, compared the two political figures during an appearance on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.
In reference to Cummings’ rise to become the prime minister’s top adviser, Mantel said: “Dominic Cummings created a picture of himself as an outsider, which was intrinsic to his self-created function.
“But what Cromwell did was he conquered the hierarchy. He understood where real power lay as opposed to status and he worked his own way through the system, in a way that shouldn’t have been possible in that very hierarchical world.”
Mantel was the first woman to win the Booker prize twice: first in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the first book in the trilogy, and then for the sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.
The actor Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell in the stage versions of Mantel’s books, told the programme: “There is an element of a man from outside, from perhaps a lower-status background and origin, scaling the heights, as it were, and becoming indispensable.”
Mantel added that Cromwell would not have gone on holiday during an “international crisis”, in an apparent shot at the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who was in Crete as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
“Cromwell was a politician,” she said. “He was the kind of man who was quite rare in any era, perhaps in any walk of life, because he was someone who was very much a big-picture man, but he knew how to take care of all the details as well.
“He privileged competence and turning information into knowledge.”
She added: “He wouldn’t have gone on holiday during an international crisis. Can you imagine Cardinal Wolsey going on holiday?”
Earlier this week, Mantel said she felt “ashamed” by the UK government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers and was intending to become an Irish citizen to “become a European again”.
She told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “We see the ugly face of contemporary Britain in the people on the beaches abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore. It makes one ashamed.
“And ashamed, of course, to be living in the nation that elected this government, and allows itself to be led by it.”
She said that she was hoping to soon leave England and relocate. “Our projected move has been held back by Covid, but much as I love where I live now – in the West Country, by the sea – I feel the need to be packing my bags, and to become a European again.”
When asked about the prime minister, Boris Johnson, she said: “I have met him a number of times, in different settings. I agree he is a complex personality, but this much is simple: he should not be in public life. And I am sure he knows it.”