Dominic Cummings’ preoccupation with Brexit always went hand in hand with a desire to shake up the British state – and he has never made any secret of his withering disdain for the civil service.
So, while Downing Street on Monday tried to play down the significance of the departure of Mark Sedwill, the talk around Whitehall is of a revolution under way.
His exit – and the move to make Brexit negotiator David Frost the prime minister’s new national security adviser – is widely seen as just the beginning of a wider upheaval.
Michael Gove laid the intellectual groundwork for the shakeup with a lecture at the weekend in which he set out what he regards as the main faults in the Whitehall machine.
Some of these – that the civil service is too London-centric, and stuffed with generalists who move between jobs too quickly instead of acquiring expertise – would be familiar to most students of politics.
Less diplomatic views of the civil service are set out in Cummings’ blog, in which the prime minister’s adviser claimed last year that Whitehall’s upper echelons acted as a “protected caste to preserve its power and privileges regardless of who the ignorant plebs vote for”.
“Being in charge of massive screw-ups is no barrier to promotion,” he complained. “Operational excellence is no requirement for promotion. You will often see the official in charge of some debacle walking to the tube at 4pm (‘compressed hours’, old boy) while the debacle is live on TV.”
He also criticised Sedwill’s predecessor Jeremy Heywood, who died in 2018. “The elevation of Heywood in the pantheon of SW1 is the elevation of the courtier-fixer at the expense of the thinker and the manager,” he wrote in June 2019.
In January this year, as he urged “weirdos and misfits” to apply to work in Downing Street, Cummings condemned “confident public school bluffers” and warned that “if you play office politics, you will be discovered and immediately binned”.
Eton-educated Johnson has sometimes been dismissed as a public school bluffer himself, and victims of Johnson and Cummings’ own ruthlessness say “office politics” is exactly what they excel at.
In what appears to be another move to bring more control to the centre, a series of new cabinet committees were quietly announced on Monday, giving Gove and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, extensive oversight over policy as the country recovers from coronavirus.
The Treasury is widely expected to be next in No 10’s sights, with the merging of its advisers with Johnson’s – the issue that prompted Sajid Javid’s resignation – seen as the precursor for a more drastic clipping of its wings.
Cummings reportedly told a recent weekly meeting of special advisers that it was a mistake to see him as a centraliser. He said he wanted to empower individual departments – but he is known to have a spectacularly low opinion of most politicians.
Cummings had already centralised control over special advisers across the government, with an external agency, Hanbury Strategy, run by Vote Leave’s former director of communications Paul Stephenson, screening applicants.
As for Sedwill’s replacement, No 10 has said it will be a current or former permanent secretary. It is likely to be someone more sympathetic to Johnson’s Brexit project and his brook-no-opposition, bulldozer style.
A name in the frame is Antonia Romeo, currently permanent secretary at Liz Truss’s Department for International Trade which is widely deemed at risk of being rolled into the Foreign Office.
Mark Wormald, currently permanent secretary at the Department of Health but previously at the Department for Education during Gove’s tenure, is also being mentioned in Whitehall.
But Cummings and Gove have both made clear the government wants to do more than replace small-c conservative mandarins with more sympathetic figures.
In his speech, Gove repeatedly made reference to the Great Depression-era government of Franklin D Roosevelt in the US. Roosevelt created a whole battery of new, publicly funded government agencies to roll out his New Deal programmes across the country.
As Gove put it: “Roosevelt recognised that faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required but a change in structure, ambition and organisation. The establishment of new bodies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Association, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration demonstrated a willingness to break the mould of the past.”
Some observers expressed scepticism about the comparison between Johnson and Roosevelt.
Stewart Wood, the Labour peer and former adviser to Gordon Brown, said the prime minister’s “new deal” was likely to be mainly about differentiating his administration from previous Tory governments. “As an analogy it’s totally preposterous,” he said. “What they want is just to make a break from austerity and show that they’re different.”
Crucially, some of Roosevelt’s agencies were staffed with political appointees – including a young Lyndon B Johnson, who used his leadership of the Texan outpost of the National Youth Administration not just to create thousands of jobs for out-of-work teenagers, but to build up a statewide political machine that he subsequently used to run for office.
Johnson is keen to hold on to the former Labour heartland seats he won last December, and the advantage of bold, coast-to-coast spending pledges administered by shiny new agencies is that they should be clearly visible on the ground.
He and Gove also both have a long track record of handing jobs to trusted friends, and their “new deal” is unlikely to be any different. “How many mates has Michael got to whom jobs can be given? That’s all it amounts to so far,” said one former colleague.