Dominic Cummings role provokes alarm inside civil service


Whitehall unions say rushing into radical changes before Brexit could be ‘catastrophic’

Boris Johnson’s decision to recruit Dominic Cummings as a key adviser has provoked concern and disbelief among union leaders and civil servants.

The man credited with masterminding the campaign to leave the European Union, who has described Downing Street’s machine as “decrepit”, will coordinate the new prime minister’s pledge to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

It emerged on Wednesday that Cummings, 47, will also have a role overseeing the recruitment of special advisers who counsel ministers. It is part of a move to centralise a political function that was once fulfilled by government departments.

Last month he wrote a blogpost calling for a revolution in Whitehall and an end to the Kafka-esque influence of senior mandarins.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of the Prospect union, which represents specialist civil servants, said it could be “catastrophic” for Cummings and the incoming government to rush into radical changes across Whitehall before Brexit.

“Dominic Cummings has in the past called for a widespread restructuring of the way the civil service operates. We have already seen, barely half a day into the regime, a step change in the way accountability operates with special advisers,” he said.

“At a time when the government is so utterly dependent on its civil service it would be catastrophic to embark on a distracting reorganisation to address misplaced views about the civil service.”

Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said Cummings, like other “self-styled disruptors” such as Steve Hilton, a former director of strategy for David Cameron, would struggle once he dealt with the realities of government.

“There’s a huge difference between bringing in new ideas or radical agendas and implementing untested ideologies which, if they go wrong, will impact upon the delivery of public services to millions of citizens,” he said.

“Ultimately, it will be for the prime minister and ministers to decide on the government’s agenda – with advice from the civil service and special advisers – as they will ultimately be accountable for any success or failure of any policy.”

Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS union of rank-and-file civil servants, said Cummings’s disregard for parliamentary rules – he was found to be in contempt after failing to appear before an MPs’ committee – increased concerns that he would ignore basic protocol.

“Reports of his hatred for the civil service are concerning and show his ignorance about the important work our members do,” he said.

Cummings, who has a reputation for being quick-witted, foul-mouthed and outspoken, was an adviser to Michael Gove at the education department, and later became campaign director for Vote Leave during the EU referendum.

He was the lead character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in James Graham’s TV dramatisation of the Brexit campaign earlier this year. From County Durham and educated at a private school and Oxford, he is credited with devising the leave side’s winning strategy, including coming up with its hugely resonant “take back control” slogan.

He was not seen with Johnson during the latter’s campaign to become prime minister, but he had been in touch with the former London mayor over many months, it was claimed. “There’s no doubt that Dominic had a hand in the campaign. He has been part of a general Boris4PM plan for a long time,” said one leave veteran.

He will be working alongside Sir Edward Lister, who has been running the transition team. Lister is expected by some ministers to stand down following Brexit, leaving Cummings as the prime minister’s most senior aide.

Although No 10 has to approve all special adviser appointments, ultimately it is ministers who are responsible for the conduct of their special advisers, sometimes known as “Spads”, including discipline, as they make the appointment under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Changes to the rules under Johnson mean that all such advisers will now be employed centrally rather than with different contracts. One source claimed that Cummings insisted upon a right to veto future recruitments, a claim that has not been confirmed.

A Downing Street source said: “Spads serve the PM. They have always had to be approved by the PM. That will continue.”

Cummings was himself vetoed for a special adviser role by Andy Coulson,David Cameron’s own special adviser during his premiership in 2010.

Some Brexiter MPs have cheered the recruitment of such a committed leaver. Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “Anyone who might have hoped that we weren’t leaving on October 31 now knows. With Cummings there, it dispels all myths.”


About Author

Leave A Reply