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17 November 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 9:34am

Why Dominic Cummings was the main obstacle to his own revolution

Boris Johnson’s chief aide forgot that while revolutions may sometimes need battles, reform requires coalitions.

By Colin Kidd

Scarred, stunned and with serious casualties in its higher ranks, the civil service has survived the Cummings blitz. The sudden departure of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, in the wake of the forced resignation of his protégé Lee Cain, No 10’s director of communications, seems to mark the end of a painful year-long political war against what Cummings and his allies refer to scathingly as “the Blob”. 

But any celebrations among the senior mandarins of Whitehall might be premature. This was a palace coup, not a counter-revolution. Cummings’s erstwhile patron Michael Gove remains in a key position at the Cabinet Office: unencumbered by heavy departmental responsibilities and able to engage in “blue sky” speculation, Gove is the government’s playmaker. The removal of Cummings and Cain will not end arguments over advice in Boris Johnson’s government. As the pandemic has demonstrated, advice-giving in politics is never without friction – even when it concerns seemingly objective scientific questions.    

Beneath the rhetoric of “the government” following – or trying to keep up with – “the science”, and the Cummings-Gove campaign for innovation in administration, lie perennial questions about advising and deciding. The problems associated with political advice constitute one of humanity’s oldest topics of discussion. For government was never so small that a single ruler could steer the ship of state alone; and just as governments generate advisers, so they in their turn beget controversy, accused of usurping powers that belong to others.

This first tumultuous year of Johnson’s premiership has brought such issues into particularly sharp focus. Who gave the dubious constitutional advice to prorogue parliament during the Brexit negotiations? Has Johnson been guided in such matters by the prudence and legal counsel of senior civil servants? Or has he relied exclusively on a sinister chief adviser – Dr Strangelove in a hoodie – who used game theory to strategise the government’s exit path from predicaments? 

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Gove’s Ditchley Lecture of last summer, “The Privilege of Public Service”, was a velvet-glove version of Cummings’s knuckle-dusting assault on Whitehall. In a polite and restrained fashion, Gove identified serious failings in the civil service. Strikingly few senior civil servants, he argued, are conversant with balance sheets or possess quantitative skills, not least in the fields of probability that underpin risk. Worse still, because promotions in the service are generally achieved these days by moving across departments, this means that “deep, domain-specific knowledge” is sacrificed to a more superficial general administrative competence. There is, moreover, a bias within the service against experimentation. Innovation is regarded not as a positive to be encouraged, but as “a mischief”. Yet the scale of the threats facing us as a nation, Gove contends, requires a revolution in policy making of the sort exhibited in the US during Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

Similarly, though in a less emollient register, Cummings has alleged that a swathe of recent developments in information technology and across the sciences have barely registered with a hidebound mandarin class. In his blueprint for reform, the outmoded, classically educated civil servants found in the higher ranks of the service would give way to a new breed of Cummings-like “weirdos and misfits”, informed by Big Data, quantitative analysis, game theory and super-forecasting. Cummings presented himself as first mate on a necessary national voyage towards futuristic modes of administration. 

Several of the most senior civil servants have been ushered to the exits, including the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, who brought a bullying claim against the Home Secretary Priti Patel. In their wake, Downing Street publicly advertised for a data expert to set up a “skunkworks” – a radical innovation group in No 10. 

[see also: Dominic Cummings’ resignation was not planned – this is the aftershock of a failed coup​]

In some respects, this is merely the latest episode in the long-running tussle between spin doctors and civil servants, but there has also been a darker turn towards ultra-loyalist groupthink. Just how much freedom has there been to provide unpalatable advice? The resignation statement of the former chancellor Sajid Javid was a telling intervention: ministers, including the prime minister, need counsellors who can provide candid advice. Demands for central rather than ministerial control of the hiring and firing of special advisers and the drive to create a joint team of advisers in 10 and 11 Downing Street were worrying auguries that ministerial collegiality was hardening into something more authoritarian. Groupthink became manifest after the cabinet reshuffle in February, when Johnson had colleagues chant the government’s slogans by rote. 

And this revealing event came only a month before our strange new normal, when medical and scientific advice became the proclaimed central determinant of government policy. However, the temporary eclipse of arguments over advice from the headlines proved fleeting, as a series of questions emerged about how far the purity of scientific advice had been sullied by grubbier political imperatives. 

When faced with the ultimate test of modern governance – how to maintain the health of the population while resuscitating a service-based economy suffocated by lockdown measures – there are no easy answers. But it doesn’t help to start with a weak cabinet, a demoralised civil service, and scientific advisers canny enough to see that they are the potential fall guys. “Advisers advise, ministers decide” cuts both ways. 


Yet, in all fairness, just because Cummings and Gove believe something doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. For a start, Cummings is right that the cabinet is too large and ponderous for serious, focused discussion. And clearly there is room for improvement in the civil service. After all, how could something so apparently straightforward as the NHS procurement of gowns turn into such a grim Whitehall farce?   

Of course, politicians need specialist scientific advice on a regular basis; not just on Covid-19, but also flood defences, climate change, HS2, new communications systems. But the need for such expertise does not change the basic ground rules of advice-giving. No single scientist can advise on all of these, or cover all contingencies. Specialist scientists need to be summoned as and when required, and won’t always agree. Two of the main scientific advisers to Churchill’s wartime government, the chemist Henry Tizard and the physicist Frederick Lindemann, clashed over the efficacy of strategic bombing. Lindemann, who had been elevated to the peerage as Baron Cherwell in 1941, was close to Churchill, won his confidence and prevailed: a misguided campaign of strategic bombing ensued, based on one interpretation of the scientific and statistical evidence. 

The zoologist Solly Zuckerman – who was chief scientific adviser to the UK government between 1964 and 1971 and himself, ironically, a proponent of targeted bombing of transportation systems in the Second World War – argued in his Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1975 that scientists needed to be alert to the limits on the advice they gave governments. “Responsibility in expert advice,” he warned in a piece of meta-advice to which Cummings should have paid heed, “always needs to be characterised by modesty.” This is because real-time facts are often incomplete, and the social consequences of advice unpredictable and unknowable: the scientific adviser soon learns, Zuckerman warned presciently, that issues which might appear straightforward on scientific grounds would often be ruled out for social or economic reasons. 

To resurrect the economy without endangering the population, the government needs to find ingenious solutions – to think not only outside the box, but perhaps to rethink the box entirely. What we need is a branch of government capable of thinking the unthinkable.

We used to have one. It was set up by Ted Heath in 1971 and then abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1983. This was the Central Policy Review Staff, or government think tank, a body of around 15 to 20 advisers drawn equally from the civil service and outside, who worked not for individual ministers or even exclusively for the prime minister, but for the cabinet as a whole, in the cause of joined-up thinking across government. Heath’s reforms redirected attention away from short-termism towards longer-term objectives, yet, in the cruellest of ironies, his government was to be swept away in a torrent of unwelcome events.

The pandemic may have forced Johnson’s government into the most un-Conservative of positions. But then its former leading adviser was hardly a typical Tory. Part of Cummings’s act – along with the offensively superior dishevelled look, which channelled Silicon Valley and said to Downing Street officials, “Look at me, I’m too important to conform to normal dress codes like you” – was his non-membership of the Conservative Party. It was a very deliberate two-fingers to workaday Conservative politicians, who found they had to kowtow to someone who made it known he didn’t even belong to the party. Yet that part of his attention-stealing shtick was far from inappropriate. For this non-Conservative disruptor has been the continuator of a left-wing critique of a small-C conservative civil service establishment. 

Cummings and Gove, who opened his Ditchley Lecture by invoking Antonio Gramsci, belong to a radical lineage whose foremost figures are Labour critics of civil service conservatism, largely in the 1960s and 1970s: the likes of Richard Crossman, Tommy Balogh, Norman Crowther-Hunt, Brian Sedgemore and Tony Benn. Crossman’s Diaries – published over the objections of the establishment – let daylight into the private tussles between ministers and civil servants. 

Balogh, an Oxford economist and one of the first special advisers in Downing Street, lambasted the civil service for its deliberate ignorance of the contemporary world. Why did it assume that classics was superior to economics as preparation for the administrative arts? The higher civil service, he proclaimed, was “the apotheosis of the dilettante”. The result was not only farcical, but served to frustrate Labour objectives. Possessors of the “crossword-puzzle mind” might happily preside over a free market, but were hopelessly out of their depth in a planned economy which required specific bureaucratic interventions. 

Benn perceived something more malign at work in the culture of Whitehall: an unholy and secret alliance between the entrenched corporate interests of a quasi-feudal civil service and the prerogative powers of the Prime Minister, which undercut Britain’s supposed parliamentary democracy. The solutions Benn advocated included a powerful Freedom of Information Act, stronger political controls on the civil service and a constitutional premiership. 

[see also: The Dominic Cummings saga has exposed Boris Johnson’s chronic weaknesses]

Criticism of the civil service was not confined to the left. The Fulton Committee’s report on the civil service in 1968 complained about the “cult of the generalist”. Civil servants, it noted, “are not adequately trained in management”, rarely remaining in a job more than two to three years. The findings of the great and the good who sat on the Fulton Committee – in other respects, the Blob incarnate – sound like an eerie anticipation of Cummings’s blog. The constant shuffling of civil servants between departments has left, Cummings claimed in his blog post of 2 January 2020, a lack of general management skills and of “deep expertise in specific fields”. Echoing Fulton, he added that “improving government requires vast improvements in project management”. 

Written in an era of technocratic faith, the Fulton Report expressed a yearning for scientists, engineers, technicians. Its suggestion that ministers employ “small numbers of experts” to assist them was reprised – whether intentionally or not – in the desire for technical input that Harold Wilson used as a justification for his new No 10 Policy Unit in the mid-1970s. Cummings would not dissent. His notorious demand for “weirdos and misfits” was seventh in a list that included economists, policy experts, managers, communications experts; all building on his previously expressed demands for predictive scientists, cognitive technicians, statisticians and other more skilled special advisers. Fulton urged more openness to external appointments from other professional groups – there being “not enough awareness of how the world outside Whitehall works” – not so far removed from Cummings’s claim that “governments must be much better at tapping distributed expertise”. 


Yet the lure of technocracy, so attractive again in the Cummings project, may be a siren song. Cummings combined an awareness of the frequent failure of predictions – discussed at length in the work of the political psychologist Philip Tetlock, whom he has invoked – with a demand for evidence-based and quantitative thinking. Political debate, he wrote in June 2019, needs to move away from competing authorities and storytelling, away from arts bluffers towards real evidence. Yet this unlearns the hard-won lessons of policy science in the US during the Sixties and Seventies. The discipline was built on the confident assumption that rational, evidence-based public administration would rapidly solve social ills. But it eventually dawned on the most perceptive policy scientists that their discipline was an art rather than a science, rooted in rhetoric, and still indebted to Machiavelli. Had Cummings caught up?

Cummings, like Machiavelli, has perceived the opportunities for reform that lurk in moments of existential political crisis. In June 2019, Cummings spoke of the Brexit referendum as a chance for “extreme leverage” to deal with the “systemic dysfunction of our institutions”. The government he has served must now grapple with an ongoing mega-crisis on top of Brexit-induced upheaval. Still, it is worth pausing to ask whether rolling evolution would have been a more successful form of revolution. Was the Cummings witch-hunt for establishment opponents against whom to battle distorting the real problem: fear of dissent from within?

This has been a striking omission in the world of Cummings: where was the space for dissent? Where was the imperative to advise honestly and speak frankly? Down the centuries, those reflecting on advice have praised candour. While many have, sensibly, warned of the need to use this with care – choose the right time, pick the right place, mix in some praise, normally, wait to be asked – there is a consensus that the best rulers value criticism.

The staff of Downing Street, wrote Wilson’s former press secretary Joe Haines in 1977, have “a duty at all times to support” the prime minister, including “the obligation to advise, to warn, to dissent and, in extreme cases, to resign: duties that Haines – nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” – never shirked. But there was a marked paucity of this under the Cummings regime. When evidence-based logic pointed in the opposite direction to the government’s intent, did anyone listen? Was there any mechanism for dealing with conflicting advice, and how were conclusions communicated to the prime minister? Was Cummings the sole route of access? The necessary gatekeeping role advisers play, filtering diverse alternatives into a manageable list of options, all too easily stifles any chance of letting in fresh air.

While revolutions may sometimes need battles, reform requires coalitions. Advice works when both givers and recipients trust one another: to avoid self-interest, to criticise if needed, to be discreet, to allow a fair hearing. And it rests on good interpersonal relationships. Ministers need some role in choosing special advisers if they are to form an effective team; external experts need to be able to challenge groupthink while showing due attention to experienced policy-makers who can render innovative ideas into deliverable form. Shrewd participants recognise the need for buy-in. Might Cummings have been the main obstacle in the way of his own revolution?

Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose both teach at the University of St Andrews. Their co-edited volume “Political Advice: Past, Present and Future” will be published by Bloomsbury in February.

[see also: Dominic Cummings’ departure won’t make a difference to the Brexit negotiations​]

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