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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder