Every time. Every single time.
A new broom enters Downing Street with big ideas: David Cameron and the Big Society; Theresa May and an “economy that works for everyone”; Boris Johnson and the levelling-up agenda.
It’s all bright new dawn, and then — like clockwork — it’s sucked into the black hole of comms-led, crisis management.
The important is sacrificed to the urgent and, once again, a government loses its way.
Of course, a Prime Minister is always on show, having to deal with events as they arise. It’s almost impossible to keep them away from the limelight so that they can devote their time to long-term plans.
But what about their ‘gurus’ — the big thinkers that provide them with their most interesting and important ideas? Surely, a space can be carved out for them to develop meaningful thought into effective action? Can’t they be left undistracted by things that won’t matter in a year’s time or even next week?
Cameron had Steve Hilton, May had Nick Timothy and Johnson had Dominic Cummings. In their various ways, all three of them had the brains — and the guts — to challenge the status quo, to break free of the stale civil service style of policy development and to chart a course out of our national malaise.
But once these guys got into Downing Street, the same thing happened. They got captured by the machine. By which I don’t mean the Whitehall machine, but the comms-led cult of contemporary politics. Once they found themselves trying to ride that bucking bronco it was an inevitable that they’d be thrown off. Not one of them lasted more than a year or two.
The mistake is trying to control the beast, when it needs to killed. We’ve forgotten that the primary purpose of government is not to communicate but to govern. Obviously, politicians need to explain, persuade and reassure. But if you’re leading your nation comms is a secondary function, not your first order of business. To adapt what Churchill said about scientists, press officers need to be on tap not on top. Instead we’ve got a system of power in which everything else in government is subordinated to comms — the monkeys giving orders to the organ grinders.
Predictably that creates a crazed environment in which no one, no matter how thoughtful, isn’t going to go crazy themselves. Thus not only to they find themselves unable to stay in control of the news agenda they can’t even stop themselves from becoming the story.
Dominic Cummings’ great hero is George Mueller who lead the effort to put a man on the moon. Mueller’s visionary, ruthless style of management is hard to sum up, but one thing we can say is that he didn’t run the Apollo programme from the NASA press office.
Whether in space flight, government or any other great endeavour the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Cummings didn’t and that is his tragedy.