It is a week since the news broke that Dominic Cummings, the controversial former head of Vote Leave, was to take on a top role in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street: officially, “Brexit Chief”, unofficially, the most important person in Number 10, even taking the seat traditionally occupied by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. It was soon reported that Cummings was to run a tight ship, and in the week that has been, that has certainly proved to be the case.
In a departure from precedent, all Special Advisors (SpAds) now report directly to Cummings, and it is he who exercises a final veto on ministers’ choices of advisors as they settle into their new departments. It has created a phenomenon of “SpAds-in-waiting”: new appointees, many of whom have already started working for their minister, who are terrified of drawing attention to themselves or of confirming their appointments to inquiring journalists.
“I’m not sure if it’s official yet… I don’t want to be presumptive,” quakes one, awaiting the Cummings seal of approval. Others have turned down jobs in the expectation that Cummings would veto them anyway, as indeed happened in the case of Stephen Barclay’s choice of SpAd, whom Cummings deemed “insufficiently pro-Brexit”. Gone are the days of widespread leaking from even the highest echelons of Theresa May’s administration: there is now a palpable sense that SpAds feel Cummings looking over their shoulder, and are keeping their heads down as work gets underway.
Will this brave new world last? For now, there is a firm grip from the centre, but it presents an obvious tension. If cabinet figures begin to diverge from the Number 10 line, SpAds will find themselves caught between fear of Cummings and their ultimate loyalty to their minister, forced either to be spies on their bosses or disloyal to the man on top. But, with Cummings’ tight grip, he’ll be determined that there’ll be no such cabinet divergence.