The controversial adviser is launching a military plan of campaign to reshape how government works. But his interventions could simply make things worseby Jill Rutter / January 27, 2020 / Leave a comment
Is Dominic Cummings Britain’s most successful political campaigner? He pulled off the two biggest political coups not just of the decade but the last 100 years—masterminding an against-the-odds victory to leave the EU, and a thumping Conservative majority after the party had spent 10 years implementing austerity. We know, then, that Cummings can read voters, craft messages and run highly disciplined campaigns. But does he know how to run a government? After all, governing is not campaigning—it is a cliché to observe they are as different as prose and poetry. And the Johnson administration has done more campaigning to date. Its governing successes so far amount to unblocking the stasis under Theresa May and, it would claim, “turbocharging” no-deal preparations. We have no idea, of course, whether those would actually have worked.
Now back in No 10, Cummings’s thoughts have turned from a campaign of rhetoric to something like a military plan of campaign to reshape Whitehall, finally winning battles with the civil service which he first waged as Michael Gove’s adviser at the Department for Education. He isn’t inclined to a forgiving view of others he has worked with, especially not mandarins, and he sees breaking their culture of caution and group-think as a precondition to being able to do anything at all. We know he has big ideas to change the way government works—what we don’t yet know is if he can translate them into action.
First up is reducing the size of the cabinet and cutting down the number of government departments. Cummings is right that a core cabinet of 22 with an added eight or so attendees cannot be an effective decision-making forum. But no one pretends it is. Big decisions have, for generations, always been made in much smaller groupings, whether in a cabinet committee room or on a sofa. Fewer departments should mean fewer ministers round the table—but that comes with two disadvantages. First, there is a big short-term cost to such reorganisations, both in pounds but also lost productivity, while people literally shuffle desks around. The second is political: the reason for cabinet inflation is that it keeps ministers happy. David Cameron suffered from ministers who wanted to be in cabinet but saw their jobs taken by Lib Dems. Johnson may be in a strong…