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Artillery Row

Boris: take back control

Steve Baker calls on Dominic Cummings to go

Today’s newspapers are a disaster. Enormous political capital is being expended saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and who clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home, without childcare from their parents, and instead risked spreading the virus by travelling.

It is intolerable that Boris, Boris’s government and Boris’s programme should be harmed in this way. Three changes are immediately required.

First, the Government needs competitive expert advice. It is obvious that if Oxford’s Professor Sunetra Gupta or Sweden’s Professor Johan Giesecke had determined the scientific advice of SAGE, measures to stop the virus would not have been so hard nor gone on so long.

In a year, it seems likely we will look back and ask, not why we were slow going into lockdown, but why we were so slow coming out. Why was so much predictable economic carnage fomented? Why did official policies allow so many people with urgent non-COVID health problems to die without care? How could a Government so focused on our NHS have allowed waiting lists to increase by millions?

We need to embrace the truth that experts fail too. Professor Roger Koppl has set out the perfectly reasonable explanations why experts get things wrong. We need to learn what Feynman taught, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And then establish competing teams so Prime Ministers and Cabinets can select the advice which does least harm and most good.

Second, scandalous incompetence must be expunged from the implementation in software of scientific theories. Superb dissections of the junk code which implements Professor Neil Ferguson’s frequently-wrong model have been written. However brilliant and correct science may be, it is worse than useless – positively harmful to millions – if it is coded badly.

I was a professional airworthiness then software engineer once upon a time: anywhere else –  be it the RAF or investment banking – requires seriously good code for seriously important things. Government and academic science must now pass that threshold too. This is a lesson we have learned the hardest way possible.

Government must insist in law on software engineering standards commensurate with the task of steering public policy imposed on millions of people by force of law. And no area of policy can be immune: both epidemiology and climate change must be supported by open, high quality software which engenders confidence not derision. Work must start immediately on defining those software standards.

Third, everyone in senior political office must make the right decisions, for the right reasons, in the right way and carry them to completion with the right techniques.

We must have no more “hollow men” leaning together with heads filled with straw, whispering together the same vapid tropes handed to them by a strongman to whom they have sworn fealty. Neither can we have in backroom power a dominant figure who regards accountability with contempt. One who venerates science beyond reason and whose response to every serious problem is, metaphorically, to drag someone into the public square and chop off their head.

I refer, of course, to Dominic Cummings.

As Vote Leave geared up, I watched with admiration his actions there from a desk in their open plan office. To work for Dom – to obey – is to be respected, to be part of a brilliant, driven team. Dominic cultivates heartfelt and ferocious loyalty, as Vote Leave’s board found when they rightly tried to sack him for regarding accountability with disdain.

And that, right there, is why I have always opposed Dominic being in Number 10. Not because he lacks talent: he is brilliant. Not because he is weak: his resolve is absolute. Not because he shrinks from wreaking great and terrible things: he stops just beyond the civilized limit. Indeed, Dominic Cummings taught me a great deal to apply in his absence, in the period of my life when I needed to be ruthless.

Dominic Cummings must go before he does any more harm

But I always made myself accountable to more senior colleagues. As far as I am aware, among those who work with, rather than for him, only Michael Gove enjoys Dom’s respect.

So it is hardly surprising when mums and dads were going without the childcare provided by their parents – perhaps while they were isolating for 7 and 14 days with COVID19 symptoms – that Dominic was suiting himself with a long drive, presumably with stops, to get help during his illness. After all, he said we should vote for the original Withdrawal Agreement without reading it, on the basis Michael Gove articulated: we could change it later. But now with him in power, we are putting in a modest border in the Irish Sea.

We were told Dominic was not involved in Team Boris. We were told he would not be Chief of Staff. We were told he would go after we left the EU on 31 October 2019. But here he is: the man who failed to get us out of the EU on time but did enormous collateral damage along the way. Clinging on as Chief of Staff in a pantomime of his own making, burning Boris’s capital when it is most needed. Seeing to it that the media are sneered at and the police are attacked for doing their duty. To get his way.

Enough is enough. I and others saved him once before when he was driving Vote Leave to implosion. Not today. Dominic Cummings must go before he does any more harm to the UK, the Government, the Prime Minister, our institutions or the Conservative Party.

Time is up. It is time for Dom to resign so Boris can govern within the conventions and norms which will see us through. It is time to get competing expert advice, decent software and better decisions, end the lockdown and start a long, hard recovery.

Steve Baker is the Conservative MP for Wycombe and a former chairman of the European Research Group. @SteveBakerHW

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