Michael Gove's former adviser Dominic Cummings has hit out at Downing Street. Photo: Getty
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Michael Gove’s ex-aide lashing out at No 10 shows the powerlessness of having a rogue ally

The Education Secretary’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings has attacked the PM and his circle – a lesson in the peculiar powerlessness of ministers when an ex-aide goes rogue.

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.