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Dominic Cummings must win the battle of the SpAds

To achieve the great things that Cummings writes about in his blog then he needs a moonshot army of his own

February 11, 2020 - 7:00am

Another day, another hit piece on Dominic Cummings. Or two or three or more. Supply and demand is elastic.

What’s going on? This, from a piece by Dan Hodges in the Mail on Sunday, tells us everything we need to know:

Last Thursday, I was having a drink in a secluded East London pub with a Government special adviser. The topic of our conversation was Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson’s brilliant but increasingly controversial senior aide – and his edict Government special advisers should no longer drink with journalists.
- Dan Hodges

Increasingly controversial? I’d have thought that securing Britain’s exit from the European Union was the high point, controversy-wise; but no, it seems that interfering with the SW1 gossip factory is what really matters. Hmm.

Compared to the enormity of the challenges facing the nation, the number of people that a Prime Minister can appoint directly to get things done is tiny. Not counting the Whips, there are less than a hundred ministers. There are a hundred or so special Advisors, about fifty unpaid Private Parliamentary Secretaries and a few other waifs and strays. So, altogether, about 300 appointees with varying degrees of influence over a government machine of hundreds of thousands of civil servants.

It’s therefore really important that the 300 should be fully devoted to the pursuit of policy objectives, not petty vendettas. Inadvertently, the constant briefing against Mr Cummings makes his point for him.

Yet one has to ask how much of a difference a more disciplined operation would make — in particular a reformed cadre of Special Advisors. Though important, their importance shouldn’t be exaggerated — at the end of the day they’re a bunch of press officers, researchers and speechwriters.

One of Cummings’ great heroes is George Mueller — head of the NASA Office of Manned Space Flight (1963-69) — and thus the man who man who put a man on the moon. Mueller didn’t deliver the Apollo programme by reorganising the NASA press office. Obviously, he also had an army of America’s most brilliant people behind him.

To achieve the great things that Cummings writes about in his blog then he needs a moonshot army of his own. So far, there’s no sign of it materialising — not beyond the established structures of government.

Still, the battle of the SpAds is a good place to start. If Mueller hadn’t even been able to control NASA’s press officers, I doubt he’d have bothered with the hard part.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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