Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief aide, has famously instigated a crackdown on government leaks since arriving in Downing Street less than two weeks ago. He has a “one strike and you’re out” policy, it was widely and ironically leaked in his first few days, as special advisers (Spads) to cabinet ministers were warned of a no-tolerance approach to sharing tidbits from inside government with journalists.
It’s part of a new culture of complete discipline, colourfully dubbed a “jihad on Spads” by one newspaper’s source. Only “true believers” in Brexit are to be hired, they report to Cummings, and the pace of work has increased. (As I reported here, Cummings has a veto on these new Spad appointments, leading to a phenomenon of “Spads-in-waiting”: new appointees, awaiting Cummings’ final approval before formally beginning their roles. It means several government departments have no officially confirmed special advisers, two weeks in.)
In a meeting with Spads yesterday morning, Cummings reiterated the message. He slammed Phillip Hammond and Greg Clark, accusing them of “frustrating” Brexit during their time in office, asked Spads to compile a list of no-deal preparations required in their department, and – again – spoke forcefully about his policy on leaking.
“My worth to journalists is greater than yours. For the right story they will rat you out” he reportedly warned them, adding that he had been a Spad himself at the Department for Education, that he knew how it worked and they should not take him for a fool.
But in the meeting, Cummings rather told on himself. As the Spectator’s Katy Balls reported, he actually clarified that the leaks that fall into the “one strike and you’re out” bracket are those that are damaging to the government’s aims – hence his phrasing, warning Spads not to “leak against Brexit”.
So for all that Johnson’s top adviser is furiously future-proofing against potentially damaging government leaks as the UK hurtles towards 31 October, he depends on leaks like anyone else in his position, and he knows it.
Whether it’s the harsh rhetoric that leaks out from these private encounters or the new countdown clocks erected across Whitehall as a reminder to civil servants of the looming Brexit deadline, or the very fact that we know he said his job is to “deliver Brexit by October 31st by any means necessary” six times in the first Spad meeting, Cummings wants and needs his special advisers to get the message out.
Just as he is using Spads as a tool through which to control the cabinet, they’re his way of controlling the media narrative from Downing Street. As long as they’re leaking about his maverick style, the tight ship he’s running, the 7.55am meetings and his laser-like focus on no-deal preparations, the leakier the better for Cummings.