Cummings was incompatible with our system of government. He had to go

Whoever comes next will need a subtler reading of the operation of the British state

November 14, 2020
Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

The Cummings debacle is not the first manifestation of overweening, unelected advisers being at the centre of power struggles in Number 10—far from it. Think of the TB/GBs—the bitter battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with their advisers briefing and counter briefing against each side. Or the conflict between Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser Alan Walters and her chancellor Nigel Lawson, which led to the resignations of both and presaged her downfall.

Nor is this the first time infighting at the top has been seen in terms of cabinet government and an impartial civil service versus a more presidential, US-style system. There was outrage in Blair’s Whitehall when an Order in Council gave Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff—both political appointees—the right to give orders to civil servants. Yet as Jack Brown points out in his book No 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street, Powell “integrated himself sensitively into the fabric of Number Ten.” The book also says Campbell had “no irreconcilable differences" with the existing operation in Number 10.

In contrast, Cummings started creating his own structure of special advisers, dominated by Vote Leave supporters, all answerable to him rather than the ministers they worked for. And he certainly didn’t do it in a sensitive way. The then chancellor, Sajid Javid, resigned after being told he must sack all of his SpAds and accept a team chosen by Cummings. This came after one of Javid’s advisers, Sonia Khan, was marched out of Downing Street by the police on Cummings’s orders without Javid being told, let alone consulted. This week she accepted a substantial out-of-court settlement after agreeing to withdraw her claim for unfair dismissal. The incident was just one example of the contempt Cummings often showed to officials, ministers, MPs, the media and others in Number 10. When advertising for “weirdos and misfits” to work for him, he reportedly said that anyone who didn’t fit in would be “binned”—an inappropriate choice of words to say the least.

There have been plenty of powerful advisers who were unpopular: Theresa May had Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, known as the terrible twins; Gordon Brown had Damian “McPoison” McBride; Harold Wilson’s political secretary, Marcia Williams, was so feared that his officials would follow him into the Downing Street gents and hold discussions there in order to avoid her. Sometimes tempers boiled over and language became ripe. Yet outwardly at least, for the most part, people treated each other with courtesy and respect.

Not so Cummings. However brilliant at campaigning—he was instrumental in winning the Brexit referendum and securing Johnson’s election victory—and however inspirational he undoubtedly is to some of his acolytes, he alienated too many people on too many different fronts. And he has not redeemed himself by a show of competence in government. No wonder there are calls for a less abrasive, less macho approach, calls led by Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s new Press Secretary who is to be the public face of Number 10.

In the past, our system of cabinet government backed by an impartial civil service has always survived chaos and attack. So will it do so again? Much depends on how far Johnson can impose some order in Number 10. The trigger for the turmoil was a row over whether Lee Cain, the director of comms and a close ally of Cummings, should be made the PM’s chief of staff. His appointment was blocked—Stratton reportedly refused to have him as her boss—and he has now left, but the choice of who does take the post is crucial. Powell, who had the job under Blair, told Jack Brown: "The problem I saw in Number 10 was that there was no one person who brings all the different parts together—the civil service and the political, the domestic and the foreign, the press office and the schedulers too—and make[s] it work for the PM.”

This, surely, is exactly what the current PM needs if he is to have any chance of restoring order to the Downing Street centre. It is thought the chief of staff role will go temporarily to Eddie Lister, who is already the PM’s Strategic Adviser and who worked with him when he was mayor of London. He is certainly a safe pair of hands, but who will take it on permanently? One reason Powell fitted in so well was that he had been in the Foreign Office. Knowing how Whitehall works is a crucial qualification for the job.

Being good with people will be another—indeed it will be essential, not just for mending fences flattened by Cummings but for adjusting to the new order. The events of the past few days will have strengthened the hand of the civil service, notably Simon Case, the new Cabinet Secretary. We can expect an end to the Cummings policy of culling top officials—one of the victims was Case’s predecessor, Mark Sedwill. The influence of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his most senior civil servant, Tom Scholar, will also be enhanced—particularly as Stratton was comms director at the Treasury until last month.

The bloodletting may not be over. Some members of Cummings’s Brexiteer network may be cleared out in the coming days. He himself may well fight back by lifting the lid on some of the gorier details of life in Johnson’s Number 10. Yet there is a sense of weariness with the infighting at the heart of government, especially when there are real-life battles to be fought, not least against the pandemic. A return to more stable government would be welcomed by the public, by many senior Tories and certainly by the civil servants.

The historian Peter Hennessy says the civil service is like Lazarus: over the years it has been battered by prime ministers and by their advisers but always it has risen again. As one former mandarin said this week: “I was always struck by the strong immune system of the government machine.” Despite the drama of the last few days, the chances are that it has survived the onslaught by Dominic Cummings.