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29 June 2020

The contradiction at the heart of Dominic Cummings’ vision of civil service reform

Promises of decentralisation often mask the concentration of power in the hands of a tightly-knit group of Leavers.

By Stephen Bush

Mark Sedwill will stand down from his joint roles as head of the civil service and as national security adviser in September. David Frost, Boris Johnson’s man in charge of the EU trade negotiations, will take on the role of national security adviser – with the role of civil service chief to be filled at a later date. 

It is a huge change to how the former role – created by David Cameron in 2010 – operates: from being held by a career civil servant with a background in the intelligence and security communities to one held by a political appointee. Frost had a long career in the Foreign Office behind him before he became Johnson’s Europe spad, and is well-qualified for the role of chief EU negotiator. But his qualifications for the role of national security adviser, at least as envisaged back in 2010, are less clear. 

Johnson and his allies clearly envisage something very different for the role. Michael Gove set out the government’s objectives for reform of the state in the annual Ditchley Lecture, while Dominic Cummings told political aides that a “hard rain is coming” on Whitehall. 

But the Frost appointment reveals a contradiction at the heart of the Gove-Cummings-Johnson approach. We hear a lot about the importance of decentralising power and expanding the cognitive diversity of the British state: good, sensible objectives. Then, when the dust settles, what has actually taken place is greater concentration of power in the hands of a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men who know each other and all have a pre-existing relationship with the Prime Minister and have the typical qualifications, social mores and connections of the average member of the British establishment, other than the fact they cast a vote for Brexit on 23 June 2016. 

The big question for this government is whether in practice, when the dust settles on their reform agenda, genuine reform will have taken place: or if Cummingism in practice is simply centralisation with a good dose of cronyism thrown in.

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