I must confess to having a soft spot for mavericks such as David Cameron's Spad Steve Hilton and Michael Gove/Boris Johnson's Spad Dominic Cummings. They were rightly critical of Whitehall's many faults and fizzing with ideas of how to improve things. But they were very poor at understanding the concerns of those with whom they worked, and seldom willing to devote much time to consultation, explanation and persuasion. Their critics said that they lacked empathy and therefore failed to read what was happening in their meetings.
Fellow Spad Giles Wilkes said that Steve Hilton was unable "to grasp a system he hoped to control. He did not so much collide with reality as arrive late to meetings with it, shout at it, question what makes it tick, and then storm off, appalled at reality's obstinacy".
Immediately after his appointment by Prime Minister Johnson, Mr Cummings told all Whitehall's other Spads that he, rather than their Secretaries of State, was now their line manager. He then, only a few weeks later, dismissed one of the Chancellor's Spads, Sonia Khan, without even telling, let alone consulting, the Chancellor, Sajid Javid. As the IfG's Jill Rutter noted:
- this was unprecedented,
- it showed that No.10 was determined to make clear to all Secretaries of State their lowly pace in the pecking order compared with Mt Cummings, and
- No.10 could get away with it because Mr Johnson had appointed a Cabinet of unequals unwilling and unable to challenge him.
(Ms Khan claimed compensation, so drawing attention to Spads' new employment status. Put shortly, they could no longer be dismissed without fair process or compensation. In response, the Cabinet Office started building up a Spads HR team, and re-writing their employment contract. It was in some ways quite funny that Dominic Cummings' first organisational intervention led to more internal red tape.)
Ex-Minister David Laws commented that Mr Cummings is "very good at defining himself against things like the north-east assembly, the EU ... or David Cameron. Now he has to show he can deliver not just bloody good campaigns but something positive".
Iain Martin - a right of centre commentator - later opined that "Cummings has proved himself to be totally hopeless when it comes to the business of implementing his lifetime's ambition, that is remaking the machinery of the UK state. It is not enough to be a renegade campaigner who thinks everyone else, bar your own fans, is an idiot. Opponents have agency and sometimes they can even help. Meaningful change in government is extremely tough to deliver and it requires guile and charm."
Margaret Thatcher's long-retired Press Spokesman, Bernard Ingham, commented as follows:
What ... is Cummings wittering about? He is right in saying that the general run of senior Civil Servants is not at the cutting edge of science and technology on which he sets much store. They are not expected to be. Their job is to help devise and implement policy and process legislation through Parliament. That is a skill in itself.
They are not “gifted amateurs” – as no doubt in his more generous moments he sees them – but experts in the conduct of a democracy under first Ministerial and then Parliamentary control. I don’t care whether they have double firsts in ancient Latin, Greek or Sanskrit but whether they subject expert – weirdo?– advice to constructive questioning and stop Ministers making fools of themselves.
This is not a doddle. It often involves offering difficult choices – and the guts to present Ministers with unpalatable truths. Cummings should be very careful before he throws the baby out with the bathwater.
He is on firmer ground when he complains about senior civil servants being moved around too much so that, like rolling stones, they gather no moss – i.e a deep knowledge of their particular subject. But this ignores the need to widen the experience of rising Civil Servants and also give the burned out a new challenge.
He also complains that it seems nobody is ever sacked. It’s not true. Nobody can play fast and loose. But it is true that they are usually redeployed in the system as I once was for no other reason than Willie Whitelaw, moved to the Department of Employment from Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, arrived with his own press officer having, “in a weak moment”, promised to bring him back to London. Within six weeks I ended up in the new Department of Energy.
Cummings must be very careful what he wishes for in ending security of tenure. Does he want to destroy application and loyalty as so many purblind managers have done in the private sector with their insecure employment terms and conditions?
Put simply, life’s a balance. And one man’s impatience with the time it takes to get anything done – has he never heard of the legislative process? - and a portfolio of prejudices against the system has to be balanced against the absolute need for administrative expertise.
Dominic Cummings cont'd
Mr Cummings' power appeared even more remarkable as the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic became a huge domestic crisis. He and other senior figures in government almost completely ignored civil service advice (grounded in decades of experience) in how to respond to such a crisis. And he drove his family to Durham and Barnard Castle in clear breach of the advice that was being given to everyone else - and was being generally followed. He then withstood huge pressure to resign again sending quite wrong signals to the general public.
The appointment of David Frost to lead the Brexit negotiation team broke new ground. His activities did not exactly break the Spad Code of Conduct: They "would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department" (emphasis added). And he did not formally manage or instruct any civil servants. But he was very powerful and had a very important job in which he appeared to make some policy decisions whilst remaining entirely unaccountable.
His status became even more remarkable when he was elevated to the House of Lords and appointed National Security Adviser (in parallel with his Brexit job) despite having almost no relevant experience.