The curious predicament of Dominic Cummings

Ex No 10 Insider: Downing St chiefs of staff are all powerful, until they're not.

by The Secret Brexiter
Last Updated: 16 Sep 2019

The role of the Downing Street Chief of Staff has become a critically important one over recent decades. Often a highly skilled and trusted confidante, they can corale activity across No 10 and government departments, undertake specific sensitive initiatives - just read Jonathan Powell’s description of his work in Ireland - and take a muscular approach to shaping the policy agenda, all based on their proximity to the nexus of power, the Prime Minister. 

Dominic Cummings has attracted more attention than most, in his short time in the job (technically special adviser to the PM, but nobody's under any illusions), no doubt because of his role in masterminding the successful Vote Leave campaign. By all accounts he’s had no qualms using the second-hand authority that comes with the job, but he may be wise to consider the fate of his predecessors.

In good times the chief of staff can move with relative ease and in a quite effective way go about the business of running an effective No 10 operation. But in bad times, as befell Theresa May’s confrontational joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill - felt by some to be acting more like deputy prime ministers - they can become an object on which MPs can lock their anger. The failure of the Conservatives in the 2017 election heralded Timothy and Hill’s downfall as MPs forced the PM to abandon her most trusted and relied-upon advisers.

Tony Blair of course famously gave up the famously confrontational spin doctor Alastair Campbell, not his chief of staff but a key adviser nonetheless, following the Iraq dossier affair. But just as for Timothy and Hill, the knives came out amongst Campbell’s enemies, who were only too glad to take their chance when it came.

History shows the frequent blame which can be attached to a monarch’s wicked counsellors - it’s a very familiar repeating pattern, from Thomas Cromwell (at least) onwards.  However, the case of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford seems particularly apposite in these times of a modern civil war.

Authoritarian, unconventional and single mindedly focussed on achieving the ends of his monarch Charles I - generally raising revenues - Wentworth made many enemies during his tenure as Lord Deputy of Ireland. He was brought back to England in September 1639 to resolve the issues of bankruptcy and war facing the kingdom, seeking solutions for the monarch that were aggressive and ran against the interest of Parliament and the establishment. In 1640 he was impeached by Parliament for his high misdemeanours in Ireland. While this impeachment failed, by 1641 the King was forced to give up his adviser and Wentworth was executed.

What each of these examples show us is that at times of extreme stress and pressure, advisers, particularly those with a reputation for a combative approach, who aren’t seen as establishment insiders, or who are willing to ruffle feathers, can find themselves one way or another on the chopping block.

British politics has rarely been as pressurised as it is now, and it’s clear that much of MPs’ ire is being directed at the PM’s controversial special adviser Cummings. MPs have targeted his aggressive decision making, his approach to staff management and his character. Underlying it are concerns about motive, effectiveness and "fit".

If Johnson can hang onto his trusted adviser until an election, it may be that he can repay that faith with the type of surprise result seen in the Brexit referendum. Problems soon go away when you start to win.

However, if history is a guide, it will be very tough for a prime minister who finds himself struggling to take the initiative against a surprisingly unified wall of opposition to his short tenure as PM, to keep hold of his adviser for much longer without a distinct change of course and tone.

Image credit: Sam Saunders/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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