Dominic Cummings is to the Government what Prince Harry is to the Royal Family — both a thorn in the side, and a broken record.
We’re all familiar with what both men think about the institutions they used to be part of. And yet they keep on telling us. That doesn’t stop us from paying attention every time they have another go, but we’ve ceased to be shocked by their revelations. With subtle variations, we’ve heard it all before.
Thus the conventional wisdom is that the Cummings interview with Laura Kuenssberg last night doesn’t matter. It will do no more to shift the polls than Cummings’ select committee appearances, his Twitter threads or his pay-to-view blog. The Cummings factor has been priced in.
In fact, if anyone’s stock falls it will be Kuenssberg’s. Editorialising as she went along, she was performatively shocked that Cummings the campaigner might marshal facts to make effective slogans; and that Cummings the advisor might tell his boss what to do. It was a tedious waste of time that should have been used to extract more information about the inner workings of Downing Street.
When we got the insider info, it was only because Cummings was so eager to volunteer it. We normally have to wait years to understand the true nature of a government. By the time the memoirs are published and the official papers released, what’s unveiled is of historical interest only. But not in this case. Here we have a Prime Minister and his closest colleagues exposed in situ.
No government can operate in complete secrecy. Off-the-record briefings and counter-briefings are routine. However, the usual practices of political gossip do more to obscure the truth than reveal it, which is why they’re tolerated. What we get from Cummings is different: a dissection, not a diversion.
We know his general diagnosis: Boris is a clueless bluffer, Carrie is an interfering minx, that sort of thing. But leaving aside the personal animosity — or, in Cummings’s case, the impersonal animosity — one has to conclude that he’s basically right.
When it comes down to it, there’s something very wrong indeed with the Downing Street operation. This is a government that’s incapable of learning from its mistakes — which leaves an abundant resource to go to waste.
Take the issue of lockdown. On that front, Cummings made a big mistake of his own — badly mishandling the public rage surrounding his trip last year to County Durham. He’s admitted as much and did so again last night. The key point though is that the Government should have learned a lesson — which is that they can impose lockdown restrictions on the population, but only as long as ministers and their advisors stick to the same rules.
Anything else violates the sacred principle of fairness, which matters more to the great British public than either freedom or equality. And, yet, when Matt Hancock was caught breaking the rules with a lady friend last month, the Prime Minister airily declared the matter closed. But it wasn’t closed at all — and the Health Secretary was gone by end of the next day.
So a second chance to learn the lesson. But just this Sunday, Boris tried it on again. Instead of self-isolating like the little people, he thought he could dodge this requirement by recourse to a convenient loophole. He thought wrong — and this time it took just three hours to get from shameless defiance to shamefaced u-turn.
If this was the only hat-trick of bad judgement calls, then it might not matter that much. But with this government, it’s a pattern not a fluke.
Another example is the declaration of “freedom days”, which then don’t happen. Thus we had the Christmas amnesty of 2020, which was cancelled; followed by June 21 this year, which was also also cancelled; followed by this week’s liberation, when we woke up not to freedom, but a full-blown pingdemic.
You see the pattern? First there’s a mistake, then a failure to learn from it, and then a failure to learn from it another time.
In his interview, Cummings compared the Prime Minister to a “shopping trolley”. This will have confused viewers — but the reference is to a faulty conveyance that constantly veers off course. It takes a huge expense of time and effort just to get it back on track — only for it veer off again.
It’s an apt metaphor — but it wasn’t Cummings who came up with it. As noted by Michael Savage and documented by Tim Shipman, the comparison was first made by Boris Johnson himself — in reference to himself. “Yup, that’s why it’s so widely used in no10,” Cummings confirms, “everybody knows not only is it true but HE knows it’s true.”
So if Boris knows he needs help, then why isn’t he getting it?
According to the Cummings view of the world, the quality of government in this country is compromised by two systems — the party system and Whitehall system. These need to broken up because they restrict the flow of talent into key government positions. And it’s true: unless you’re willing to work your way up the bureaucratic ranks or slither-up the greasy poll of party politics, then opportunities to serve are limited.
However, there’s one problem with this theory — which is that though the pool of talent on the Tory benches is a shallow one, Boris has yet to exhaust it. If you look around the Cabinet table it’s quite clear that he’s not fielding the A-team.
It isn’t “the system” that’s stopping Boris from getting more support; it’s his refusal to carry out a comprehensive reshuffle.
The original line up — chosen before the 2019 election — was selected to amplify a simple message: get Brexit done. However, priorities have changed and the Cabinet needs to change with it.
Let’s start with Rishi Sunak. A year ago, he was a good fit — both as Chancellor and as the PM’s designated successor. But with Boris in better health and the levelling-up agenda in need of generous funding, Sunak is becoming an impediment. After his pandemic spending spree, his fiscally cautious instincts are coming to the fore. That’s understandable, but the PM needs a CX who will back his northern strategy to the hilt. Time to move Sunak to the Foreign Office, and move a true believer like Michael Gove or Greg Clark into the Treasury.
Dominic Raab — the current Foreign Secretary and the Cabinet’s resident tough guy — would make a better Home Secretary. In particular, he needs to be charged with getting a grip on illegal immigration before that problem becomes a crisis. This move would displace Priti Patel, but in the run up to general election there’s an obvious position for her as party chairman.
As always, there is deadwood to clear out and promising junior ministers promote to Cabinet. Among the latter, Penny Mordaunt has impressed at the dispatch box, Nadhim Zahawi has excelled as vaccines minister and Kemi Badenoch has shown the right way to prosecute the war on woke.
Boris would also do well to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister. If he won’t apply himself to the detail of policy development, then he should empower someone who would. Jeremy Hunt would be a safe choice; the newly ennobled Ruth Davidson a bolder one.
Of course, bringing two new senior figures into Cabinet — a deputy PM and a new Chancellor would fundamentally change the dynamics of the Boris Johnson’s premiership. But is that such a bad thing?
The only excuse for keeping this shopping trolley government on its present course is if one thinks that it’s heading in the right direction. Looking upon the present chaos, the Prime Minister can’t possibly believe that to be the case.
He’s therefore got two options. Either to wait for the country or his party to run out of patience — or to take control of events. Of course, he’s not Dominic Cummings. He’s not going to re-invent our entire system of government. But what he can do is reinvigorate his Cabinet.
Time to get on with it.