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Don’t do as I do, do do as I say

Changing personnel is easier than changing things, finds Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings is the most interesting thinker at the top of British government for some years – perhaps, though he would not welcome the comparison, since Oliver Letwin was running the No 10 policy unit.

Whenever he is out of power he spends his spare time reading and writing, primarily on his sprawling blog. There he has laid out a radical vision of a state remodelled to work more like the most successful companies, headed by exceptionally talented individuals with scientific and mathematical training. The British state is dangerously poor at learning from its mistakes, Cummings points out, and cannot even define what success means; this caused, he argues, the breakdown of governance that led to Brexit and Westminster’s three-year struggle to deal with the implications of the EU referendum.

On some fronts, he has achieved exactly the opposite of what he recommends

Now the blogger is at the very top of that state, and he is not alone. Last weekend his old ally and patron Michael Gove delivered a lecture calling for structural reform of the government along similar lines, with more subject-specific expertise and geographical diversity. Even allowing for the disruption of Covid-19, the way lies open for Cummings to reshape No10 along the lines he has been drafting for decades.

So far, he has not done it. On some fronts, he has achieved exactly the opposite of what he recommends: rather than hiring top scientists, entrepreneurs or coders to staff the government machine, he has filled No10 with alumni of think-tanks and newspapers, just like every previous administration. In January Cummings put out an appeal for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to join his team, but just one was hired (only to be sacked for being too much of a weirdo and/or misfit); most applicants are still awaiting a reply. Gove used his lecture to demand less rapid turnover and more specialising in the civil service – 24 hours later, Mark Sedwill became the shortest serving cabinet secretary in history as he was politely defenestrated. His replacement as national security adviser, David Frost, has never worked on security policy.

As important as staffing, according to Cummings, is managing personnel to get the best results out of them and prevent major errors. He is an enthusiast for “red teaming”, the practice of asking a group of colleagues to pose as hostile actors in order to test an organisation’s assumptions and find its weak points before a genuine opponent can. Cummings once praised Warren Buffett for using the technique to “limit damage done by egomaniac CEOs pursuing flawed mergers and acquisitions”. In government, by contrast, the close-knit Conservative leadership encompasses no serious dissenters. Outspoken MPs such as Jeremy Hunt, Tobias Ellwood and Tom Tugendhat are banished to the back benches; special advisers from the wrong wing of the party are sacked or told to move departments; and even the Chancellor lost his job when he refused to merge his team with the Prime Minister’s.

The refusal to involve dissident Tories is of a piece with Cummings’ disdain for the average member of Parliament. He believes veteran Eurosceptics in the Conservative ranks nearly brought down the Vote Leave campaign (not least by trying to get him fired), and was once found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence to a Commons select committee unless its members were willing to go on oath. One crucial way of expanding the talent pool in government, he has argued, would be to appoint ministers who are not MPs and give them for the first time the right to speak in the Commons.

A parliamentary majority of 80 should have vindicated Cummings’ view of the low value of lobby fodder – not least because the general election results in December proved once and for all that nearly all voters cast their ballots based solely on party with no regard to the local candidate. Nonetheless, Boris Johnson has found himself bowing to backbench opinion time and time again: on the NHS surcharge for migrant medics, on free school meals over the holidays, on Sunday trading laws and – almost certainly – on Huawei in the near future. The power of MPs seems not diminished but enhanced.

Perhaps the only group in Westminster Cummings holds in lower regard than Tory MPs is lobby journalists

Perhaps the only group in Westminster Cummings holds in lower regard than Tory MPs is lobby journalists (here I must declare an interest). He believes they (we) are out of touch with ordinary people – as shown by the 2016 referendum and 2019 election results – scientifically illiterate and too easily distracted by shiny baubles such as insider scoops. But he has not been able to curb his habit of briefing favoured journalists with occasional titbits; and on some issues the media has proven more in tune with the public mood than he is, not least during the row about his own behaviour in driving his family to County Durham in the middle of lockdown which he spent days trying to dismiss as a storm in a teacup.

One of the sacred cows Cummings tried to slay on his blog was the tradition of Prime Ministers paying emotional tribute to victims of terror attacks through tweets and Commons statements, which he dismissed as “giving [the attackers] just what they want”. Needless to say, the current PM has kept up the practice after Fishmonger’s Hall and Reading killings – evidence, perhaps, that radical heterodoxy is rather easier to discuss than to perform.

Cummings’ writings are sophisticated and complex. His actual political successes up until now have tended to be brutally simple: pick a three-word slogan, test it in focus groups, repeat it endlessly, no quarter to his enemies (or unreliable friends).

There is still time to change it all. Although he loves to drop hints that he is on the way out of Downing Street, there is no reason he cannot stay there for four more years. The pandemic has obviously interrupted his plans, so it would be unfair to make a definitive judgment this early. But no one will be more disappointed than Cummings himself if his acute insights into the failures of the British establishment never translate into novel solutions.

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