Whoever comes next will need a subtler reading of the operation of the British stateby Sue Cameron / November 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…