14 January 2020

Is Dominic Cummings on a collision course with Tory MPs?

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Dominic Cummings is proving an ever-growing source of fascination to the media. In a way, this is nothing new. It is part of the political soap opera to depict Svengali figures exercising the real power while the Prime Ministers just read out the speeches written for them.

With Theresa May it was Nick Timothy. David Cameron had Steve Hilton. Gordon Brown relied on Damian McBride, Tony Blair was putty in the hands of Alastair Campbell. Even the formidable Margaret Thatcher was considered heavily reliant on Charles Powell in her later years.

Journalists like to write about such people to prove their insider credentials. We can all see what is openly announced by just watching the news. Telling us what was happening behind the scenes – who was at which meeting, what biscuits they had to eat and so on – is meant to give us the real story. It does tend to more about process than policy, but the intrigue and plotting about how decisions are made is where the drama is. Seeking understanding for decisions themselves might be more important but it’s also less exciting.

Talking up the advisers can also cause jealousy among elected politicians. Theresa May, for instance, used to be irritated by suggestions that she was dependent on Timothy and Fiona Hill. Boris, I would wager, does not suffer the same sense of insecurity as his predecessor.

The PM has a sufficient sense of humour to enjoy the fuss Cummings has caused, and after a crushing election win, the self-confidence of being in charge of the nation’s destiny. Nor is Johnson afraid of having outspoken, bright and independently-minded people around him to help get the job done.

Envy is more likely, however, to bubble up among Cabinet ministers. Cummings’ bold proposal to slash the size of the Cabinet, in particular, might not go down very well with those who might find themselves out of a top level job. Then there is the resentment at not feeling in charge of which departmental policies are going to be implemented or abandoned.

This is partly a matter of tone, of course. Ministers are used to disagreements with their own officials every day. But where civil servants might voice objections with silky respect. “If I might offer a not of caution, Secretary of State….” Cummings lacks any such sense of deference.

For Conservatives, with an instinctive acceptance of procedure and hierarchy, this may all come as a bit of a shock. In Channel 4’s drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cummings is presented as something of a political alchemist: a cynical, anti-establishment figure cunning enough to fool the public into voting Leave.

While that characterisation may feel a bit far-fetched, the contempt that the screen version of Cummings showed for established politicians certainly did ring true. “Hell’s bells,” exclaims a screen version of veteran Tory MP Bernard Jenkin at the latest Cummings indiscretion.

Now we have round two. Cummings has written a blog asking for “weirdos and misfits” to shake up Whitehall. The real life Sir Bernard, who used to chair the Public Administration Select Committee, has been critical of the idea that established procedures can simply be sidelined in a whirlwind of executive activity.  “It is up to the Prime Minister to decide how he wishes to advertise for special advisers, but any other recruitment to the civil service has to be via the proper channels,” is Sir Bernard’s view.

The recruitment of senior officials is overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission. Of course, Cummings will be aware of such structures – but his idea is to bring them crashing down.

It’s not just the old guard who may be uneasy. As the ever astute Paul Goodman writes on ConservativeHome: “The Tory candidates who swept so much before them last month contain individuals of outstanding talent. Nonetheless, they have been shaped and pushed by the Party machine to win and hold seats – not, say, to lead and drive Cummings’ planned departmental amalgamations and ambitious reforms.”

The Conservatives have an overall majority of 80. One can quibble about whether or not that constitutes a “landslide” but it is certainly substantial enough for the Government to do what it wants. Even so, there is little sign so far that Johnson has any appetite to pick fights with his own backbenchers that he can avoid.

Having a revolutionary in Number 10 also makes things tricky for would-be loyalists. These MPs might have strong feelings on one or two issues, but generally they are keen to be seen as team players. How can they stay on message when they aren’t clear what the message is?

Take this quote from Cummings on the issue of diversity:

“People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity….We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire).” 

Though I find myself cheering along with his words, for some time the official Conservative stance has been to go along with just the kind of pious identity politics that Cummings repudiates.

Suppose, just suppose, Cummings does manage to impose his will on Whitehall, what would the upshot be?

Some worry that he has fallen for the fallacy of a technocratic solution, what Hayek called the “fatal conceit” that it’s fine for the state to plan our lives, provided it’s run by jolly clever people. Others suggest that on the contrary it is about clearing the way for reforms which allow greater individual freedom, less official intrusion and a scaling back of wasteful spending that is currently protected by officaldom and vested interests.

The truth may turn out to be a bit more complicated. It usually does. But I wouldn’t bet against Cummings. He has busted the odds before – any complacency from Sir Humphrey would surely be a mistake.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist