Now that the country has decided it is time to get Brexit done, the Prime Minister can use his whopping majority to push through the necessary legislation over the coming weeks and, hopefully, move onto the much-neglected domestic agenda while the trade talks carry on in the background.
But this need to push through the legislation to have us out, as promised, by the end of January is leaving many of those on the frontbench enjoying a lengthy interview process for their own jobs – or one higher up the ladder – while we all wait for the much-anticipated epic reshuffle in February. Rumours in and around Westminster about who is out (Truss? Wallace? Barclay?), who could be coming up (Sunak? Dowden?) and who may have to be moved to allow them to spend more time with their constituents (Raab saw a huge drop in his majority in Esher & Walton) are making some hopeful and many nervous.
Talk of a significant reconfiguration of Whitehall departments is being played down, with a smaller-scale re-jig now looking more likely but Dominic Cummings’ determination to shake-up the Civil Service machine is anything but dimmed. You only need to look at his blog from 2014, where he says: “If we want serious government then we need fundamental changes in the way ministers and officials are selected, trained, paid, managed and held accountable”. His recent blog post calling for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for roles should not be seen in isolation but the first step in him seeking to put his ideas into action. With the backing of the Prime Minister, this could be more than just an expensive change of the Whitehall stationery.
“With the backing of the Prime Minister, this could be more than just an expensive change of the Whitehall stationery.”
Unnamed cabinet ministers were quick to warn about the destabilising effect of shaking up a civil service that has gone largely unchanged since its creation, pointing out that it is the ‘envy of the world’, but many acknowledge that it is far from as efficient as it could or should be to deal with the demands of 21st-century government.
But should anyone really be surprised? Changes made during Cummings’ time at DfE were surely just the warm-up act, confined to a single department and clearly with the full support of Gove as secretary of state, but the resulting anger from teachers and many parents had an impact of the 2017 election result. Later, running the Leave campaign, he seemingly had no issue with sidelining lifer-Brexiteers including Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin, as well as keeping those with much to say on the subject such as Mark Francois away from media. Upsetting Cash, Jenkin, Francois et al. might have bruised a few egos but ultimately it was in the name of a greater cause they all believed in and hasn’t had longer-term consequences for the Party’s ability to win a convincing majority. Can the same really be said for Cummings’ radical plans for the Civil Service?
Much noise is coming from the left about all this meaning that Boris is now running a right-wing, revolutionary Conservative government. But remember – Cummings isn’t a Tory, he’s a disrupter. An unpredictable force who enjoys mischief. Yes, he is a very serious person who genuinely believes in what he is doing, but if he has a fault it is perhaps that he is over-impressed by people who know things about the stuff he doesn’t. Take his call for all those “weirdos and misfits”, about not wanting “confident public school bluffers” and “Oxbridge humanities graduates”. Cummings, a former Durham School pupil, with a first in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford, is not seeking to create a civil service in his own image but instead is putting his faith in those with the skills he considers the civil service is lacking.
“Cummings isn’t a Tory, he’s a disrupter.”
As Jill Rutter has made clear in her recent piece for the FT, Cummings is right to point to the lack of scientific expertise in the heart of government, noting that those with science degrees made up less than 20 per cent of the Civil Service fast stream intake in 2018. With so few scientists coming through the door, it’s hardly any wonder there is a lack of expertise higher up. While Cummings may be right about the lack of those in our civil service with science and maths degrees, he is wrong that the solution to all of Whitehall’s problems is a load of bright disrupters at the top. Much deeper change is needed and Jonathan Portes , writing in the Guardian, is right that Cummings’ plan doesn’t make getting a GP appointment any easier for the millions who are frustrated by their lack of access.
In any case, while the political world may well be obsessed while they play the waiting game until the Brexit deadline, what may well matter far more in the long-term for the Prime Minister is whether UK troops are killed for something that Trump has done. Forget Cummings and his disruptive tendencies, this is real statecraft.
Ultimately though, change is coming to the Civil Service and it is long overdue. Whether Cummings’ radical vision is the right one at the right time, or too much too soon is yet to be seen but civil servants, ministers and those of us in public affairs would do well to pay close attention over the coming months. There will be implications for business and, combined with the renewal of the domestic policy agenda and the upcoming Budget in March we will soon learn where No10’s priorities lie. Being ready to make the case to ministers and departments, in the context and language of Cummings’ changes and vision will ensure closer alignment with the Government’s priorities and a much better chance of success.