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Dominic Cummings is quick to blame – but he fails to understand how government works

Cummings is wrong to believe that crises can be overcome simply by putting the right people in the right places. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Cummings in the same spirit that Conservative MPs turned to him: desperation. In the end, even those who had sworn repeatedly that they would do everything possible to prevent Johnson from becoming prime minister fell in behind his leadership bid.

They did so because they believed that he was their only route out of the party’s electoral and political mess. In May 2019 the Conservative Party’s performance in the local and European elections suggested it was on course not so much for defeat, but extinction. The Tories lost more than 1,000 councillors and finished fifth in the European Parliament elections. Their political plight was so bad that one senior Conservative joked that the 8.8 per cent of people who bothered to vote for the party in the European elections was useful only as a measure of the number of British people entirely lacking common sense.

One Johnson critic-turned-supporter summed up the general mood in the parliamentary party at the time: “The really important question here isn’t, ‘Can this guy be a good prime minister?’ but, ‘Can this guy remain prime minister?’” MPs reasoned that there was no one better placed to steer the Conservatives through tricky electoral waters than the former mayor of London. The trouble was, Johnson didn’t have any idea how to get the party out of trouble. So he made a desperate hire of his own: in July 2019 he brought in Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign’s success, and promised him the keys to the kingdom if he could get the Conservative Party through the Brexit process and out the other side intact.

Cummings left Downing Street in November 2020. Tory critics of Johnson say the split was inevitable: that the one constant of Johnson’s political career is betrayal. Opponents of Cummings say the same: whether at the Department for Education or when working for the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, Cummings has always had a self-destructive streak. And then, of course, there are Conservatives with little time for either man who think that their relationship resembled a typical doomed marriage.

Cummings is out of Downing Street, but not out of his former boss’s hair. At the time of writing he was due to attend a select committee hearing on 26 May on the government’s handling of the pandemic, but had already laid out his central argument against Johnson in a series of tweets on 22 May. He claimed that the government initially pursued a policy of herd immunity, but was forced to reverse against a backdrop of “total and utter chaos” – and that the failure to be honest about it was “foolish, and appalling ethics”. It is a more colourful and detailed version of what we already knew: that the British government’s original plan to tackle Covid was to let the virus pass through the population – until it realised that plan would mean overrun hospitals and countless deaths, not just from Covid-19 but from a host of previously treatable and minor ailments.

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Cummings’s supporting arguments are good ones, too: Westminster remains stubbornly unwilling to learn from the best practice modelled in New Zealand and Australia, or in south-east Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea. Tiresome and essentially racist clichés about the willingness of voters in the East to bear a greater degree of repression and control than the freedom-loving Brits still inform too many decisions about how to navigate a deadly pandemic. Given that the forces that enabled Covid-19 to spread as it did – globalisation and scientific innovation – are not disappearing any time soon, understanding where and why the British government’s decisions went well isn’t a purely academic exercise.

[see also: Dominic Cummings is asking the wrong question about the UK’s pandemic response]

But whether Cummings wishes to avoid the mistakes of the past, or simply to do as much damage to Johnson as possible, his solutions are too personal. He is quick to single out the failures of individuals, be it Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, or the Prime Minister himself. The reality is that Westminster is not teeming with Conservatives keen to learn from the success of Taiwan or New Zealand, and who are waiting to take on Johnson or Hancock’s roles. Nor is simply changing who leads various government organisations a path to a better response to the next pandemic.

Cummings has always believed that improving how government functions is about changing a few faces at the top. His heroes are figures like George Mueller, the American engineer who briefly transformed the effectiveness of Nasa in the Sixties, creating the conditions for the US to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. Cummings fails to understand that the key word here is “briefly”. Enduring change comes through improving processes and shaping institutions, not temporarily overriding them through force of will and personality.

The British government might be better run if it had someone other than Johnson at its head. But the culture that meant the government was slow to take heed of events in China or Italy won’t change without a detailed plan to do so. The real reason for Cummings’s exit – the frustrated and disgruntled ranks of Tory MPs – also attests to his failure to understand the importance of managing people and institutions.

Dominic Cummings sees the failure of the UK’s Covid response ultimately as a story of individuals – and he believes such crises can be overcome by putting the right people in the right places. This is why his attack on Johnson is likely to fall flat. And, more importantly, it is why the UK is unlikely to enter the next pandemic in any better a state that it did this one. 

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism