Politics Explained

Is Dominic Cummings’ radical civil service shake-up really so unprecedented?

Johnson’s chief adviser has made no secret of his hatred towards the bulk of officialdom, writes Sean O'Grady, but what does history reveal about the relationships between elected officials and their appointed advisers?

Tuesday 01 September 2020 19:47 BST
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As ambitious as it is sometimes vague, the Cummings-inspired programme of reform raises crucial questions
As ambitious as it is sometimes vague, the Cummings-inspired programme of reform raises crucial questions

With five of the most senior civil servants pushed out of their jobs in a matter of months, including Sir Mark Sedwill, the head of the civil service and Cabinet secretary, plus a few sackings from public sector agencies, much has been written about the rapid, and dangerous, politicisation of the traditionally independent and non-partisan administrative machine. Covid and Brexit has, it’s alleged, revealed weaknesses in the structure of government (though others say it just revealed ministerial incompetences).

However, history suggests that to a large degree some of those concerns about politicisation are misplaced. As Simon Case, at 41 a youthful replacement for Sir Mark, takes over he will face the challenge of balancing the best traditions of the civil service with the novel demands of a government unusually suspicious of, if not hostile to, Whitehall’s very ethos and sense of duty. Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Boris Johnson, in particular is keen to reshape what he sees as the “blob” of the civil service and quangocracy into a more mission-focused affair; it would be strange indeed if the prime minister and those closest to him hadn’t satisfied themselves in advance that Mr Case was up for the task of shaking things up.

The first thing to get clear, then, is that prime ministers have always tried, and usually succeeded, in surrounding themselves with officials who are politically and personally congenial to them, even if others find them abrasive or outright evil. These personalities can emerge from the traditional ranks of the civil service, be appointed to roles as special advisers or to conventional jobs done by officials, live in in-house think tanks or policy units, or indeed have no official standing whatsoever, or be merely party officials. In many cases it soon becomes irrelevant as to their background, if their competence and loyalty is sufficiently sound.

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