Dominic Cummings, former adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)

British politics needs more Dominic Cummingses

You don’t have to like him, but he got things done

Artillery Row

The covid inquiry is a protracted theatre of the mundane. Expensive barristers look meaningfully over their glasses whilst politicians answer trivial questions about their WhatsApp messages. The babblement of tsk-ing unparliamentary language takes precedence over trying to work out how the government might actually operate differently in the future. It might not surprise us that inquiries are more performative than actually inquiring. Lawyers frequently take many months and much gold to discover what common sense might have told them from the beginning. The irony is sharp and bitter in this case, though, because not being able to get stuff done is the one big problem that vexes British government today. It is the golden thread that runs through delayed GP appointments, slow trains, a green belt that constricts upon the economy like an iron chain, and an inability to improve our energy supply.

Everywhere you look, from weak growth and poor productivity to high energy prices, and a general sense that trains run on good luck rather than good timetables, the inability to get stuff done is what hampers Britain. We are addicted to the news and the narrative, whilst being seemingly indifferent to the action and the delivery. We care very, very much about attitudes and opinions, at the expense of caring about what gets built and how long it takes to build it.

Covid exposed this tension, and the inquiry is tripping up over it every day. When politicians and advisors break the covid rules, we are outraged; when Helen Macnamara, a very senior civil servant, breaks the same rules — by bringing karaoke to the famous No. 10 party — we equivocate. The bigger tension though is about effectiveness. If the government seemed to know what it was doing, there would presumably be far more leniency in public opinion about rule breaking. That the rules were both harshly implemented and the result of more confusion than strategy is what makes people angry.

We should pay more attention, in other words, to making the government effective, at getting stuff done, than we do to who said what or who broke what rule when. This is the essence of what Dominic Cummings has been saying about Westminster for years. It cares more about the Today programme than the cost-effectiveness or timetable of its projects. What the headlines say tomorrow is given more attention than, for example, that fact that a congested section of the A1 was promised to be turned to dual carriage way in 2010 — and yet work there still hasn’t begun. This is at the core of Britain’s problems: we need to build more infrastructure, energy generation and housing, but we have a government and civil service more concerned with proliferating rules and giving television interviews.

Cummings is a bogeyman of British politics — he is a rude, insensitive, bristling man; his open contempt of most people in the media has ensured their equally open contempt of him; his denunciation of the majority of Westminster as a veritable Dunciad makes him better known as a ranter than a prophet. But he is right. If the covid inquiry is revealing anything, it is that we are way too obsessed with who said what when, not with how to do better next time. In a strange and underreported turn of events, the inquiry is starting to vindicate Dominic Cummings’ view of Whitehall.

Would Gove have battled the blob so effectively?

To be sure, there are many criticisms you can make about Cummings — say what you will, it’s probably true. Nonetheless, he has headed three winning referendum campaigns, was at the heart of the academy and free schools reforms, and was somewhat essential to the vaccine taskforce and the roll out of testing, not to mention the establishment of ARIA, the new government science funding body. Who else has done so much in the last twenty years in Westminster? Who else has got so much done? You might not like the outcome of the Leave campaign, but you cannot deny Cummings’ effectiveness. You might not have found his methods of changing the education system very amiable, but standards are rising for children of all backgrounds. You might think his abrasive manner isn’t worth it for the reforms he made, but investing in ARIA represents the sort of long-term thinking so often lacking in government. As Helen Lewis, former deputy editor of the New Statesman and no Cummings sympathiser, said on a recent episode of the Private Eye podcast, Cummings has many flaws but he was trying to implement evidence based policy in Downing Street during covid, as opposed to Boris Johnon’s haphazard courtier approach. That’s exactly what we need more of: people who care more about the science than the headlines.

Many more people than Cummings should take credit for these accomplishments. Nick Gibb, whose work as Education Minister has been utterly brilliant, must be the most underrated man in Britain. Kate Bingham was the energy behind the success of the vaccine taskforce, and Sir Patrick Vallance the originator of the idea. Would Boris have been quite so capable of implementing Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendations for vaccines without Dominic Cummings, though? Would Gove have battled the blob so effectively? Something about Cummings’ huge ambition; his insistence that we must have a vision of excellence in our minds for what government might become; his tremendous energy; his dedication to maths such that he taught himself A-level whilst working as a SpAd; his insatiable appetite for evidence, data and his obsession with drawing lessons from the highest achieving organisations — all of this, when separated from the man in the news, is admirable and enviable. At a time when the British government has closed the vaccine taskforce, has no file sharing system and is paying millions of pounds to consultants to find out which one it should implement, not to mention literally couldn’t dual a stretch of a major road in fourteen years, it’s time to accept that Dominic Cummings is right. We should follow more of his advice — even if we don’t think he’s the right man to implement his own ideas.

If we want all the things we say we want in politics, we might need more people like him, not fewer.

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