An iconoclast in Number 10: Dominic Cummings returns to government

By on 24/07/2019
New UK prime minister Boris Johnson, seen here during a trip to Japan, has hired radical reformer Dominic Cummings as one of his key advisers. (Image courtesy: FCO).

The last time Dominic Cummings worked in government, fireworks flew as he clashed with officials in the education department. Having masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, he’s now returning to a key post in Number 10 – bringing with him a radical agenda for civil service reform

Boris Johnson, the UK’s new prime minister, has appointed the iconoclastic political strategist Dominic Cummings as one of his key advisers – raising fears among civil servants who remember the controversial adviser’s last stint in government.

Cummings will serve as one of Johnson’s two key aides, alongside Sir Edward Lister – who worked as one of the new PM’s senior advisers during his stint as London mayor. According to the Guardian, Cummings will focus on policymaking while Lister concentrates on strategic matters and liaison.

While much of the governments’ energies will be focused on Brexit over the coming months, Cummings will join Number 10 determined to shake up Whitehall. He believes that flaws in the UK’s civil service have played a key role in shaping the government’s failure to deliver Brexit, and his arrival is likely to spark conflict with senior officials.

An educational experience

A longstanding Eurosceptic, Cummings first took a central role in Westminster politics when then-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith appointed him head of strategy in 2002. He quit after just eight months, describing Duncan Smith as “incompetent” in a 2003 article, and later became an adviser to Michael Gove – then serving as shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families.

When Gove was made education secretary in the 2010 Coalition government, he was keen to bring Cummings in as his special adviser (or ‘spad’), but the appointment was blocked by Andy Coulson: then-PM David Cameron’s communications chief. However, the following year Coulson resigned over his involvement in the News of the World phone hacking scandal – he was later sentenced to 18 months in prison – and Cummings became Gove’s spad.

The education department was soon showing signs of internal tensions, after Gove made a series of highly political hires – some of which appeared to undermine the civil service principles of impartiality and merit-based appointments. Tory-leaning media strategist James Frayne was made the department’s head of communications, and Tory donor Sir Theodore Agnew became a non-executive director.

Into battle

Gove took a highly aggressive approach to reforming secondary education, describing teachers’ unions and educationalists as “the blob”: he viewed the educational establishment as determined to block his planned changes. In 2011, it emerged that Gove and his advisers had been using a private email account – circumventing government systems – and they were later criticised by the information commissioner, who ruled that the emails should be made available under Freedom of Information rules. At the end of that year, permanent secretary Sir David Bell and three director generals left the department.

As the government developed its Civil Service Reform Plan, Gove pushed for radical change. His ideas were watered down in the final document, but the education secretary won the right to trial wholesale reforms in his own department. His 2012 ‘zero based review’, developed with Bell’s successor Chris Wormald – who is now permanent secretary of the Department for Health and Social Care – aimed to cut about 1000 jobs, introduce a project team-based structure and focus work on “ministerial priorities”, ensuring that duplicated or unnecessary work was halted.

Cummings quit his departmental role in 2013, working outside government on Gove’s ‘free schools’ agenda until helping to found the highly effective Vote Leave campaign – and playing a key role in securing a Leave victory in the 2016 referendum. The Guardian reported in 2014 that Gove had to disown Cummings after his former spad described Cameron as bumbling, Number 10 chief of staff Ed Llewellyn as a sycophant presiding over a shambolic court, and director of communications Craig Oliver as clueless. In an apparent reference to Cummings, Cameron suggested that there was a path from special adviser to “career psychopath”.

Making enemies

Indeed, during his career the famously abrasive Cummings has made a host of enemies – including among Brexiteers. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin tried to have him removed from the Vote Leave campaign, the Standard reported, and in a 2017 tweet Cummings described former Brexit secretary David Davis as “the perfect stooge” for the late cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, calling Davis “thick as mince, lazy as a toad, & vain as Narcissus”.

In March this year, Cummings laid into the Tories’ hard Brexiteer European Reform Group, accusing them of “spouting gibberish about trade and the law” and saying that they “should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic”, politicshome reported.

While Cummings is a highly-skilled political campaigner, his readiness to criticise and undermine people – both within his party, and outside it – has often left him short of allies. He is seen – in the words of former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws – as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”, while former Ofsted inspector Michael Wilshaw has told the House magazine that “some of the people around Gove were pretty untrustworthy, they were adept at briefing” against colleagues. Four months ago, Cummings was found to be in contempt of parliament after he refused to give evidence to a select committee investigating false news stories disseminated during the EU referendum campaign, and his appointment has prompted criticism from select committee chairs.

An iconoclast on the civil service

Cummings has long made clear his hostile views of the UK’s civil service. In 2014, he gave an interview to the Times attacking the principle of a permanent civil service, and arguing that ministers are confounded by senior officials who find ways to foil their agendas. Many of his beliefs are set out in his blog, which directly challenges the idea that appointments and management fall within the remit of permanent officials.

For example, in June 2017 Cummings wrote that the “reason why Gove’s team got much more done than ANY insider thought was possible – including Cameron and the Perm Sec – was because we bent or broke the rules and focused very hard on a) replacing rubbish officials and bringing in people from outside and b) project management.”

In the UK civil service, he argued, “failure is so normal it is not defined as ‘failure’. Officials lose millions and get a gong. There is little spirit of public service or culture of responsibility. The most political people are promoted and the most competent people… leave. The very worst officials are often put in charge of training the next generation. 

“For most powerful officials, the most important thing is preserving the system, closed and impregnable. Unlike for ministers, the TV blaring with DISASTER is of no concern – provided it is the Minister in the firing line not them – and the responsible officials will happily amble to the tube at 4pm while political careers hang in the balance and you draft statements taking ‘full responsibility’ for things you knew nothing about and would have been prohibited from fixing if you had.”

There may be trouble ahead

Since leaving government, Cummings has been scathing about outgoing PM Theresa May’s attempts to deliver Brexit – calling May and Davis a “case study of grotesque uselessness”. His return signals Johnson’s determination to take a hard line on Brexit – and Cummings comes as a package: he is not a man to moderate his approach to working with people, or to put aside his views on civil service reform.

In his 2017 blog, Cummings advised incoming spads that “you cannot reform the way the civil service works. Only a PM can do that.” He is now one of the new PM’s closest advisers. And while Johnson currently lacks the majority to pursue reforms that would require legislation, Cummings’ beliefs and methods set the scene for a major battle with the champions of the UK’s permanent civil service. 

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

2 Comments

  1. Sandy Johnston

    24/07/2019 at

    Depressing. Anyone with knowledge of the Northcote-Trevelyan civil service reforms of the 19th century, and why they were introduced or who, like me, worked through the “Yes, Minister” years of the 80s and 90s followed by “The Thick of It” in the Blair Brown era, will recognise this for what it is, another step towards the politicisation of the Civil Service. Must we always slavishly emulate the US?

    Sandy Johnston, MOD and FCO 1978-2015

  2. Kevin McCabe

    24/07/2019 at

    If the EU are unhappy about the ascension of Boris, then the Brexiteers should rejoice.

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