Let Boris be Boris
His problems aren’t other people, they’re other people’s people
The latest blog: classic Dom (remarkably short for him, though), incorporating carefully circumscribed wording; explosive content; and a beautifully curated version of What Dom Did And How He Saw It All Before Anyone Else, And Warned Them, But they Would Not Listen.
Boris‘s problem, though, is in fact more complicated than just the single issue of Dom Cummings; it’s more of a trilemma, where the Boris we know and love has stumbled into being deformed; by three forces he has become beholden to.
In the first problematic corner we have, yes, Cummings, and his myrmidons who were in Downing Street with him —those people who the media are, irritatingly, referring to as ‘Vote Leave’. (They aren’t. Dom and his Downing Street mates were mostly latecomers to the Brexit party; Vote Leave was in train years before he turned up. Cummings’s Leninist splinter group was just one, and not necessarily the most important, of many important contributors to the success of the Leave vote.) The real problem Boris created by bringing in Dom was twofold; Dom, apparently, did not read the Withdrawal Agreement (or understand the lethally subtle thing Heywood was doing with it) so we now have Northern Ireland as a weeping sore; and Dom, it transpires, believes in strong government intervention —not a platform that Boris was elected on nor one that will lead to economic success.
In the second corner we have the forces of Michael Gove. Focus groups over and again report that participants, even mortals far removed from politics, know just the one thing about Michael: that he stabbed Boris in the back. When told that he is Boris’s chief fixer, most people expressed bewilderment that Boris would trust him with anything. Boris is quite aware that somewhere in Gove’s teeming complicated personality there remains a burning desire to become prime minister. He sees that Michael would happily pick up any loose ball from the scrum that came his way (this is a metaphor: I know Michael but don’t know of his rugger capacities). But Boris, when upbraided by his friends for sticking with Michael despite former treachery, responds that Gove is the only person around him who can actually get things done. So true is this, however, that now, Downing Street and the Cabinet office are populated all over with Gove appointments. The competence of many of these individuals is doubtful, but they all know who their boss is: hint, it’s the man whose patronage got them their jobs, and not the bizarrely indifferent figure who hired them.
None of the three corners of this unhappy situation – Dom; Gove/Newman; the civil service – offer a solution for Boris
Bizarrely, these courtiers-from-another-court now include Henry Newman and Simone Finn, newly promoted to the highest levels under Boris. This despite whatever role they played in persuading Michael to turn against Boris back in that fateful last week of June 2016. Cummings putting the finger on Newman as the chatty rat is particularly excellent; rats fighting in a sack, indeed. But the real problem is that Newman et al are Goveites. Michael had some strange conversion (BTS: Backbench Trauma Syndrome?) in 2017/18 to the EEA/Norway solution to Brexit, and was the most ardent advocate of the Chequers deal. Our Brexit policy is now a pushmepullyou, with Liz Truss valiantly opening up the economy while Michael closes the options down again. If Gove wins, a deregulated Britain we will not have.
And in the third corner, we have the civil service. Simon Case has held an excellent reputation in the past few months for keeping things smooth and getting things done. Most people in this drama seem to want to get on his good side. But the Dyson brouhaha showed that you can’t take the civil service colonising instinct out of the civil servant; as soon as Boris‘s WhatsApp messages with Dyson were revealed, Case was reputedly pushing Boris to change his phone number and stop communicating with the unclean, I mean, the non-official via WhatsApp – a classic way for the civil service to tighten its grip on the government by blocking it from getting different information from what the civil servants are feeding it.
While Cummings scored some early successes against some of the more woke/recalcitrant/incompetent civil servants, there have been more failures than successes in bringing the civil service to heel, a particularly enraging example being the way in which Priti Patel, trying to get things done (in a department that, since all the way back to John Reid in 2006, has been characterised as not fit for purpose), was said to have been a ‘bully’; the government – for which read, permanent officialdom – accepted that, and happily paid out compensation to one of their own (what’s public money for after all, if not for paying public officials?). Said ousted incompetent was happily thereby spared having to be told by some uppity Asian Essex girl that his department’s work was not up to snuff. Peak Dom saw hacks laughing openly at him – “a hard rain” indeed: I admire the hack that was told to who didn’t snigger on hearing it – but some of wish it had been rather more than self-infatuated bullshit. For now, the bureaucracy is not being challenged at all. Ministers talk, rats leak, but the mandarins go on governing.
None of the three corners of this unhappy situation – Dom; Gove/Newman; the civil service – offer a solution for Boris. He needs to break free from them all and go back to his roots. Boris needs to be true to himself. Let Boris be Boris again, with the vision for Britain that he articulated over three decades as a columnist and commentator, and which the country loved and elected him on. He needs a policy line that will take a deregulated, liberated UK into a successful future, one that clearly separates the country’s fortunes from the ongoing doom loop that is the EU. He needs round him a calm, non-shouty environment run by people who get things done, like he had where he succeeded before, at The Spectator and in City Hall. He needs robust advisers who will prevent ‘capture by officialdom’ by doing the hard work needed to do just that. Rather than just spending their days talking on their phones to journalists about doing so. He has players such as David Frost (and, if he can be persuaded to stay, Ed Lister) to push such a programme forward, but inside Downing Street the wrong people are stopping any of this happening. There is of course a solution. If Boris wanted to get back to his roots, of classic freedom-loving economic liberalism, there are plenty of sensible individuals to be found (just as the excellent Munira Mirza was) in various think tanks; who created, and align with, the intellectual content that led to Boris’s victories in the first place. CPS, IEA, Policy Exchange, TaxPayers Alliance, and other such – not to mention Vote Leave, most of whom were never part of the Cummings gang – could provide the Prime Minister not just with the intellectual and policy content he needs, but also provide the hard and careful work he needs to take the government forward successfully. All without any of the calamitous drama that (as so many could have told him, had he asked) was always going to accompany any collaboration with Dominic Cummings. Take it from someone who did: it was always going to end this way.
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