The civil service survived Dominic Cummings. Now comes the hard bit

There will be many further challenges before this government is through, writes a former head of the Brexit department

November 18, 2020
Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

An audible sigh of relief swept through virtual Whitehall last Friday night as Dominic Cummings picked up his box and left Downing Street for the last time. The man who had promised a “hard rain” on the civil service will not be around to make the weather.

At the centre of government for little over a year, Cummings did not have time to stamp his vision on an organisation as big and complex and enduring as the civil service. That is not to say that he did not shock the system. The centralisation of power in No 10, with all special advisers reporting directly to him, shifted the distribution of influence in Whitehall. The creation of mission control in the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall signalled a new approach to managing the delivery performance of departments. The discomfort at the top of the civil service and the unanticipated departure of several permanent secretaries was doubtless down in part to his disdain for the organisation and all its works.

Cummings was coruscating in his criticism of what he saw as the failings of the civil service and the UK system of governance more generally. He was clear on what he did not like, but less clear on what might come in its wake. He leaves behind no settled blueprint for reform. Nor is it certain which, if any, of his innovations will survive his exit. Already, it appears that management of special advisers will revert to the secretaries of state they serve. It would be no surprise if Cummings’s successors abandon his control centre and drift back to be in closer orbit of the Prime Minister in No 10.

So is that it? Will his legacy be as ephemeral as that of some of his predecessors who tore through Whitehall like a winter gale but left little trace behind? The more thoughtful civil servants will pause before assuming that the storm has really passed.

For all the hype and pseudo-scientific mystique, there was a kernel of hard truth in the Cummings critique of Whitehall. The civil service has become too disconnected from the country it seeks to serve. The senior elite of policymakers work mostly within a mile radius of Downing Street. The Whitehall ethic is broadly a centralising one. As the pandemic has once again illustrated, Whitehall still struggles after 20 years to understand the reality of power reallocated through the devolution settlements to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Too often, the metro mayors and local government in England are treated as there to be instructed rather than engaged as competent and responsible partners in the good governance of the country.

Even with Cummings gone, the civil service would do well to seek to maintain the momentum of this part of his reform agenda. A more dispersed civil service, better connected to devolved and local politics across the country, with a deeper understanding of the needs and aspirations of populations outside the metropolitan centre, will be a better civil service.

There is a wider challenge. The power of the insurgency that Cummings did so much to shape is by no means spent. It will sweep on, taking the country into a hard Brexit and rattling and shaking the conventions and institutions that buttress our democratic infrastructure. Loss of respect for the rule of law, for parliament and the judiciary, for an impartial BBC, for basic standards of truth-telling; this can be habit forming. Like never before, the civil service will be called upon to hold true to its values of integrity and honesty in the advice it gives and, in extremis, spell out publicly behaviour that breaches the standards expected of ministers.

In all the imbroglio in No 10 over recent days, one thing hasn’t changed; Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister. Cummings was his adviser, no less and no more; nothing that Cummings did or said had meaning other than as an emanation of the prime minister’s will. As an intemperate and volatile Henry VIII dispatched Thomas Cromwell, so Johnson may have rid himself of an adviser who became insolent and inconvenient. But that does not change the nature of how power is disposed in our system of government. For good or ill, the civil service will have to continue to work with a No 10 that is more court-like than ever. Cabinet governance is in abeyance and decisions in our elective dictatorship rest on the shoulders of the Prime Minister.

The departure of Dominic Cummings won’t fix that.