Michael Gove’s former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, is the latest example of an ex-aide doing what is known in political parlance as “going rogue”. He was the notoriously vigilant and ruthless spad operating in the DfE’s backrooms by the Education Secretary’s side from 2007-14, who is now giving cutting and colourful insights into the government operation. There is a good profile of him on the Conservative Home website, if you want to know more.
His latest attacks are aimed at No 10 itself, commenting in an interview with The Times:
As Bismarck said about Napoleon III, Cameron is a sphinx without a riddle – he bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose. Everyone is trying to find out the secret of David Cameron but he is exactly what he appears to be. There's no mystery to him. He had a picture of Macmillan on his wall – that's all you need to know.
Cummings was also scathing about the PM’s chief-of-staff, Ed Llewellyn, calling him a “classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court”.
He continued: “To get anything done you have to have priorities and there are no priorities. Everyone is discouraged from telling the truth to important people. There's no grip. No focus.”
This isn’t the first time Cummings has lashed out at his former boss’s cabinet peers. He has aimed his compelling brand of eloquent vitriol at Nick Clegg repeatedly in recent times:
He [Clegg] is self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest he finds the words ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ have ceased to have any objective meaning, and he treats taxpayers’ money with contempt.
He won't do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image. He is a revolting character. And I say that after spending 15 years in Westminster.
Cummings has also called Clegg’s universal free school meals policy an “absurd gimmick” and claimed that, while he worked for Gove, “We thwarted Clegg as much as we could.”
The BBC reports that a source close to the minister insists he had no idea about the interview before publication, and that he disagrees with Cummings’ comments about No 10.
This scenario of an “ex-aide-gone-rogue” is an interesting conundrum for senior politicians. They are often very close to their aides, particularly government special advisers – who they use to enforce their sway on reluctant Whitehall bods – and share a unique relationship with them that usually trumps cabinet alliances. “You see them more than you see your other half – both of you”, as one former spad describes the relationship to me.
When someone so close to an influential politician’s way of thinking and operating, but who no longer works for them, starts voicing their true opinions, there is little the politician can do to silence them – and dissociate from their remarks. There may also be an extent to which the politician is grateful for someone issuing off-message rejoinders on their behalf. Following Gove’s spat with the Home Secretary over the past few weeks, and being forced to apologise by the PM, he may have been fleetingly comforted by a friendly – and fiery – voice speaking out against No 10.
Also, with the kind of loyalty formed between adviser and politician, there is almost “an inevitability”, as an ex-adviser suggests to me, that they will look out for their former masters beyond the call of duty. Particularly with the kind of individuals hired for these high-power backroom roles. Often articulate, passionate and bright, the silence enforced upon them when they become spads – they can’t publish articles or speak publicly – means they bottle up frustrations and observations until they’re finally allowed an outlet when they leave.
“You employ people who usually have a good way with words, then you tell them to shut up. When they’ve left office, they’ll naturally want to express their opinions,” observes a former aide I speak to.
We’ve seen it before, most recently with Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s former spad who wrote a book revealing all the dark arts he employed, and weaknesses of his targets, when working at Downing Street. His machinations painted a rather sinister picture of the culture in the top levels of the Labour Party during Brown’s premiership.
Then there are those former aides attacking their one-time bosses, rather than remaining loyal, which can be particularly embarrasing. Take Alex Smith, who was once an adviser to Ed Miliband. He has been frank in critiquing the party, and the “Westminster bubble” in general , since leaving his job. “Ed just doesn’t understand business,” he said in 2011, “he’s not interested in it. He’s too academic.”
But whether they’re being attacked by their own former yes-men, or associated with former staffers’ dirty tricks or damaging comments, it’s an interesting area of powerlessness for ministers (or shadow frontbenchers) that can reveal more about what’s really going in government than what we hear daily from current spokespeople.