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Dominic Cummings: my Whitehall purges improved morale

'It required quite a lot of skulduggery and not everything was done according to the Ministerial Code.' Credit: Getty

June 28, 2024 - 5:15pm

Purges of Government departments were the only way to get anything done in the dysfunction of Whitehall and “massively improved morale”, Dominic Cummings claimed today. Speaking at a Civic Future conference at Royal Holloway University, Boris Johnson’s former top adviser criticised the inefficiency at the heart of Westminster, insisting that many Conservative MPs are “fundamentally not interested in power” and long-term projects but instead are “completely absorbed in 24-hour news”.

Cummings has previously been an outspoken critic of the mechanisms of the state and general culture of mediocrity that he believes stifle progress. From the slow progress on major transport projects such as the ill-fated HS2 axed by Rishi Sunak, to the decline in quality of MPs, Cummings has been at the vanguard of calling for Government reform in all areas.

In a discussion with Labour peer Lord Adonis chaired by former head of Number 10’s Policy Unit Munira Mirza, the former Leave architect spoke of how to increase the efficiency of a Government department. “When we arrived, the department [for Education] was completely dysfunctional, things blowing up almost daily,” he said. “The most important things we did were: replac[ing] the permanent secretary, replac[ing]the top five people and replac[ing] roughly 15 of the top 20 people.”

When asked how he managed to achieve this purge given that firing civil servants is notoriously tricky, the former head of Vote Leave said: “It was a very difficult process. Replacing the perm sec was a nightmare. So he resisted and resisted, as we expected. Once you replaced the perm sec it became easier to move some of the other people. But it was difficult. It required quite a lot of skullduggery and not everything was done according to the Ministerial Code, for sure. But it was necessary for actually getting anything done.”

Lord Adonis jokingly added that as secretary of state he never had any such “Stalinist powers”. The two have previously disagreed on Brexit, while in 2019 Adonis described Cummings’s “interminable blogs on Bismarck, eugenics and American fighter pilots” as “actually dangerous”.

Today’s conversation primarily focused on how to improve Britain’s state capacity amid a national feeling of creaking infrastructure and stagnant economic growth. Cummings warned that the system is designed to prioritise the interests of lawyers and consultants over project delivery, resulting in delays and cost overruns. In his view, governments before the internet or modern technology were far more efficient.

Cummings concluded that MPs have the wrong priorities and lack the will to make things better. “Tory MPs have no interest in government. If the MPs fundamentally don’t care about the process of government, a lot of the questions about what is the right policy are not really relevant. No one will grip these questions while the political class remains the joke that it is.”


Max Mitchell is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
27 days ago

I honestly don’t get it. If a minister of any portfolio does not approve of the performance of any bureaucrat, for any reason, why can they not simply fire said bureaucrat? As long as the employee is paid their legal severance, this should not be an issue. I don’t get it.

Peter B
Peter B
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think you’re in the US or Canada ? It’s not so easy to fire people in the UK – and even more difficult in France, Germany and Italy.
You also need to remember that all state run organisations in the UK are still heavily unionised. The Thatcher reforms did absolutely nothing to reduce trade union power – and abuse of power – in these organisations. Despite the demonstrated benefits in the rest of the economy, successive governments never even attempted to curb the power of the professional trade unions in national and local government, the NHS, state education, etc. And people wonder why productivity is so low in these areas.
These organisations are often run more for the benefit of their employees than their customers (which is not a word that they would recognise).
What tends to happen also is that people are not actually fired in these organisations – they are simply moved sideways (or sideways and upwards) so the local problem is temporarily “fixed”.
Remember also that the politicians are easily fireable (as many are about to be reminded next week). So it’s far easier for troublesome civil servants to get their political masters fired (why do you think there are so many government leaks ?) than for the masters to sack the civil servants.
If only things worked the way you assumed !
Sadly, things are about to get even worse in this area next week.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
24 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

No one is ever fired from the federal government in the US.

Spencer Dugdale
Spencer Dugdale
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Civil Service Act 2010 is why.

William Woods
William Woods
26 days ago

Yes minister, the best documentary for politicians, the best comedy for the civil service, the biggest tragedy show for the public. Why? Because it was pretty much right on the money.

John Astbury
John Astbury
26 days ago

If someone as ruthless , cunning and clever as Dominic Cummings failed to make a dint in the Blob then who might?
Incidentally, the removal of Cummings proved to be a smart move for the Tories…..

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
24 days ago
Reply to  John Astbury

Is that the truth?