The two calamities Dominic Cummings has left behind
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He might have gone, but Dominic Cummings has left a poisonous legacy which will cause untold harm to the UK, says JAMES BALL.
Pity poor Dominic Cummings, who entered Number 10 last year believing he could transform a nation, and exited last week having accomplished little more than a series of blundering encounters with the media which would humiliate any mere mortal.
His departure marks a significant moment for the government, and may even signal a change in direction for the Boris Johnson administration. But how is this the case for an unaccountable advisor who always insisted he was never in Number 10 for the long haul?
And how has a man who has wreaked such havoc and prompted such headlines in his short spell in government also managed to achieve so very little?
We should not, as members of the public, generally know who the advisors to our prime ministers are. 'Advisers advise, ministers decide' has been the mantra of British government for many years, and is in fact an essential feature of the UK constitutional system.
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Ministers are generally drawn from the body of MPs, and are answerable in the House of Commons to MPs of all parties – in the form of debates, oral questions and written questions too. The convention has always been that special advisors are accountable to their minister, and so through them are accountable to the public.
Not for Dominic Cummings such petty trivialities as public accountability or democratic safeguards – not content with having his own outsize profile, Cummings centralised power in a way even his most notorious forebearers (including The New European’s own Alastair Campbell) would ever have imagined.
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Instead of being accountable to their own ministers, special advisors were now accountable to Cummings himself. Soon after he too up his post, he unceremoniously fired several of them – with Number 10 settling one wrongful dismissal suit at almost the exact minute Cummings walked out for the last time – and blocked the appointments of still more who were not to his tastes, shrugging off the fact that mere cabinet ministers had chosen them.
Having ripped up Britain’s systems of accountability for advisors and put himself, rather than the prime minister – whose calls he would routinely ignore for hours – at its helm, he set his sights higher. In came grand talk of rebuilding the machinery of government, of building data dashboards which would allow all official activity to be monitored from a nerve centre, with Cummings at the bridge.
Advisors, meanwhile, were subjected to his esoteric managerial techniques: many were forced to attend weekly “SpAd school” sessions, listening to Cummings holding forth and setting mandatory reading of management books.
Beyond that, he tried to instil terror into the advisors under his rule. Alongside his longstanding lieutenant from Vote Leave, Number 10 director of communications Lee Cain, he imposed a 'ban' on leaks – a draconian measure roughly as likely to succeed as King Canute’s attempts to hold back the North Sea.
Other communications efforts were more successful, at least from Cummings’ perspective: Number 10’s comms took on the characteristic Vote Leave tone, prioritising sloganeering over information, cutting out outlets that fell out of favour, and creating an atmosphere of distrust between the lobby – who would complain the press team now out-and-out lied – and Number 10. For a man with Cummings’ contempt of the media, that perhaps counted as a win.
But, bizarrely, that’s where the victories stopped. Cummings was a man who wanted to change Britain, and had big plans to do so. Brexit was just the first step. He wanted to reform the civil service, build a British equivalent of the US moonshot research agency DARPA, create a UK answer to Silicon Valley through state aid, and more.
He wrote endless blogs during his time out of government on the need for all this and how easy it could be to do it – and then once he got into a position of power to actually do something about it, he got none of it done.
And yet Cummings had a better chance of achieving his goals than perhaps any other advisor in the history of Number 10.
He worked for a famously laissez-faire prime minister happy to delegate huge power to his staff. He had few rivals among the Number 10 inner team.
He had a weak cabinet, shorn of big beasts who could form alternative power bases. And he had helped engineer, through the 2019 general election, an insurmountable Commons majority of 80 – and purged most of those prone to disloyalty in the process.
No-one could ever wish for such a strong hand. It could be decades until someone has such a chance again.
And this is where the case for pitying Dominic Cummings emerges: with a position that strong, the only reason for achieving none of your lasting goals can be yourself. The only comfort for Cummings is that he’ll never see it that way himself.
To outside observers, Cummings appears unable to realise that the people around him have eyes, ears, and a working mind themselves – almost as if they are also fully-realised human beings, some of them possibly even nearly as clever as he thinks he is.
Those around him couldn’t help but notice that just as Cummings and Cain cracked down on leaks, they continued to leak themselves.
They could see the open disdain thrown in their direction, and could weigh that up when deciding just how hard they wanted to work on Cummings’ goals. In the case of Cain, in particular, several colleagues quickly grew sick of what they perceived as his misogyny. The jesting hashtag “#LeeToo” was shared in more than one WhatsApp group upon his exit.
Running a campaign is a particular, focused task: you have a relatively small team of people aligned to your political goal – and a short period of time before you can all disband. Running a government is nothing like that: your immediate team numbers in the hundreds, surrounded by thousands across multiple departments – each with their own agendas – ultimately steering a public sector staffed by millions.
Changing that requires building alliances and working for the long-haul. Cummings’ Millwall approach of government – no-one likes us and we don’t care – simply didn’t work.
He could argue that it was the pandemic that ruined any chance he had of him delivering on his grand vision. But crises are the best opportunities to reshape nations: the NHS was born out of the Second World War, the modern welfare state had its roots in the Great Depression.
Cummings needed to demonstrate he could manage a crisis and then stick it through until the worst was over, when he could use it as the rationale for major reforms. But he couldn't.
In fact, his only meaningful contribution to the coronavirus crisis has been a toxic one, the full consequences of which will never be known - the undermining of public trust in the government caused by his trip to County Durham at the height of the first lockdown.
His bitter battle to justify his actions in ignoring the rules and his insistence on staying in office came at a huge political and public cost. But having bought those extra few months in office, he did nothing with them.
For those who opposed Cummings’ dishonest campaign on Brexit, and who never wished to leave the EU, it is easy and tempting to simply laugh at this failure. But Cummings’ hubris has hurt us all. Cummings was never a Conservative – and didn’t ever join the party – he was a radical, with an idea of how he could remake the country.
Much of his vision required the UK to be outside of the EU, to be free of what he saw as the constraints it provided. But that didn't require any old Brexit – it needed the hardest of Brexits, with the UK outside the single market or even the customs union. This meant no compromise with any other versions of Brexit, and aligned him with the the hardest of right-wingers, the people who would see the UK's food standards and health and safety cut, and with NHS contracting and drug pricing on the slate for any kind of US trade deal.
He might have gone, but the die is cast. There will be no major pivot away from his Brexit vision. The UK still faces all of those consequences, alongside all of the chaos of a no-deal. But because Cummings' actual ability to deliver never came within a thousand miles of his grand plan, there is no prospect of us seeing what he could supposedly have built from the wreckage.
Inevitably, he will eventually carp from the sidelines about how lesser men than he blew the opportunity he gave them – never realising it was always going to end that way, and that the fault was his own.
Dominic Cummings was the magician who told us he had a trick we would love, if only we handed him our watch. After smashing it, he would build it back better – in the case of the country, with a plan to 'level up' the north, build a tech centre, improve government, and more. And now he is out of the door, handing us back the shattered remains of our wristwatch as he exits.
His brief tenure in Number 10 leaves two noxious legacies that have caused untold harm to the country: the erosion in trust for a government that - however cackhandedly - has been trying to keep people alive and keep the economy going through a deadly pandemic; and a poisonous vision of Brexit, that is going to become more and more apparent in the coming weeks.
Yet, for all the damage he has left in his wake, a week on from his departure the waters are already closing over behind him.
Number 10 signalled in the weekend papers that Johnson will change his style of government. Allegra Stratton, who will take over public lobby briefings early next year, is no acolyte of Cummings'. Number 10’s media boycotts of certain broadcasters have already ended.
Cummings’ failure to deliver might not be a surprise to those who never bought into his genius act, but it is a failure nonetheless. But pity remains the best response. Pity Dominic Cummings, if for no other reason than there is nothing that would enrage him more.
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