Cummings and Commentary

6th March 2020

When something new happens, there is often a lag in finding the right words to describe it or in forming the right thoughts to think about it.

And so we make do with old words and concepts.

Take for example the radical approach to government of the prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings. 

One usual approach to reporting on Westminster is to focus on personalities and briefings: the lobby system.

Another is to treat parliament as a pantomime: the tradition of parliamentary sketches.

The lobby system has its merits, and many lobby journalists are first class.

And when there is drama or comedy, the sketches can be outstandingly insightful as well as funny.

But Brexit has brought many new things, and one of the new things it has brought is the appointment of Dominic Cummings to a position of political power.

And Cummings’ approach to power, and the use to be made of it, does not lend itself fully to either the lobby system or the sketch writers. 

So we have had coverage of Cummings which is based on briefings, often taking the estimation of him as a “genius” and a “big brain” at face value.

There has also been a catalogue of his various tactical failings and mishaps which one can regard as all being “Classic Dom”.

There are elements of truth in all this, though Cummings is not a genius (as far as one can tell), he just thinks very differently to many in the political and media world, and his many mistakes and misdirections are part of a more interesting vision of how to gain and use power.

So Cummings, like Brexit itself, is showing the weaknesses of the old ways of covering politics.

Yet for every action, of course, there tends to be a reaction – and some journalists and commentators are combining fine political reporting with a grasp of the policy and structural issues that inform the ongoing struggles for power.

One of these pundits is Harry Lambert (who I do not know) who works at the New Statesman – and his piece this week on Cummings and what is happening (and not happening) in Downing Street is a fascinating read.

There are others – and the quality of analysis and reporting prompted by Brexit and its aftermath(s) is one of the good things to have come out of the whole botched enterprise.

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10 thoughts on “Cummings and Commentary”

  1. Perhaps I have only recently awoken to the fact, or perhaps it is a new development, but the acquisition of power by the likes of Cummings and Timothy is disquieting. These advisors are neither elected to any office nor are they civil servants. They seem not to be constrained to pursuing the (nominal) agendas that the party in power stands for and are accountable to none but their patrons.

    Johnson is probably the clearest example this country has seen to an empty-suit politician, but the US has had them for a while – it was obvious that somebody had to be pulling Georg Bush Jr’s strings since he could be outsmarted by most kindergarten students.
    When the disasterous experiment of Brexit has run its course, this nation needs to rethink its politics, how we elect our politicians and just how much 3rd party influence can be tolerated in our affairs.

    1. I honestly do not see Johnson leading the Conservative Party into the next General Election which will be in about four years time.

      Johnson has achieved his goal. He backed Leave over Remain in 2016, because he thought of the two positions the former would make it easier for him to ascend to the top of the greasy pole.

      He is now learning what Harold Macmillan meant when he said, “Events, dear boy, events.”

      Being Prime Minister in 2020 is not a job for a thin skinned, lazy dilettante, a 99p shop Disraeli, who clearly does not like to do his red boxes, even when Dominic Cummings is determining what goes in them and how those documents are drafted.

      When Johnson goes, Cummings will go, if he has not already gone.

      As for the other side of the Despatch Box when Corbyn goes, Milne will go, too.

      1. If that’s what you think then you don’t know/understand Johnson. Forty years after Thatcher, eighty years after Churchill, he also wants to be revered by the Tory party in the same manner: one of the three greatest PMs of the last century. That’s what he wants as his epitaph.

        1. Quentin Letts summed up Johnson’s biography of Churchill as, “My! Wasn’t Winston a lot like me?”

          I think in his mind he already has his epitaph, “I got Brexit done!”

          It is all downhill from here …

        2. I take it you mean the third of the three, going by your estimation, greatest Tory PMs of the last century?

          Add in Lloyd George, Attlee and Blair and Johnson still comes in last.

          I also think Baldwin, who kept the Conservative Party on the road during the 1920s and 1930s, and Macmillan, who pulled things back together after Suez, might have something to say about being left off your list.

          Johnson has brought about an event comparable with Suez and seems hell bent, when bent on anything at all, on maintaining the division within the country.

          Putting back together the things that he has helped to break would prove to be hard work and Johnson has an aversion to serious travail.

          When the going gets tough, Johnson slopes off and sends someone else in his place.

          And if Johnson is planning to go on and on, what is he planning his epitaph to be?

          A few vanity infrastructure projects Oop North?

          Is turning the A1 north of Newcastle into a dual carriageway really going to be enough to put him in the same league as Churchill and Thatcher?

          And, if not then what would?

  2. Cummings has not delivered anything much so far in practical terms, but then this is like his free schools experiment.

    Smashing up existing structures, picking unnecessary fights and showing everyone who is the boss are, at least at this point, more important than achieving tangible results.

    Cummings claims to be an expert on project management.

    Well, projects require a definite rationale, objectives, a clear appraisal process set at the outset, a monitoring process, evaluation and then feedback.

    Capital projects may be assessed against three outputs. Have they been delivered on time, on budget and to specification.

    The only project that Cummings has worked on in Government are free schools. Have they delivered against the expectations of them? Would be lovely if a journalist looked into that in some detail.

    Some have reported that most projects that Cummings has undertaken on his own behalf, except referendum campaigns, have been failures.

    Those who cannot do, teach.

    Those who cannot teach become generalist management consultants, get a job working for a generalist think tank, join the light entertainment wing of the Commentariat or become a SpAd?

    Cummings has yet to prove that he lives up to his inflated opinion of himself as a project manager.

    All the signs are that his idea of project management is of a different nature from the norm. One of his outriders in the media said in January that we will hear a lot less about stakeholders, people and/or organisations that will be affected by a project in one way or another.

    Key stakeholders in trade talks are those whose businesses will be affected. Their views are not being actively sought. Clearly Cummings feels they will hang off Frost’s gun arm.

    Cummings empathy short fault presumably explains his lacks of social skills that manifest themselves, in this case, in a failure to appreciate the advantages of at least being seen to go through the motions of a listening exercise.

    There is a story about the Tsar being frustrated by debate amongst his advisers as to the route that the Trans Siberian railway should take. He is said to have taken out his sword and slashed a line across the map, saying that will be where the line will be built (avoiding all the major population centres).

    I imagine Cummings empathises with such frustration. From his Weirdos and Misfits blog post:

    “If you want an example of the sort of people we need to find in Britain, look at this on CC Myers — the legendary builders. SPEED. We urgently need people with these sort of skills and attitude. (If you think you are such a company and you could dual carriageway the A1 north of Newcastle in record time, then get in touch!)”

    I take it Dom is familiar with the A1 north of Newcastle? If it is prioritised and upgraded, would it be on a par with motorway developments that in the early days, allegedly, favoured our two universities to the benefit of members of the blob, who just happen to have attended those institutions?

    To be fair to Cummings, there is evidence that he has some idea that he has limitations in the area of project management.

    Dom is staying well clear of one of the biggest failures in Government, the ongoing disaster that is Universal Credit’s delivery model. A combination of capital and revenue spend that went out of control from the outset.

    The most difficult decision in project management (and the one most likely to be flunked) is to terminate a project, because it is clearly no longer going to deliver what it was originally designed to do.

    If Cummings scraps Universal Credit, an IDS project to rank alongside Brexit, then he really would be breaking new ground.

    I am not holding my breath, though.

    Having made the decision, Cummings would need to hand over the task of carrying it out to experts and we know how much he likes them.

    I would strongly recommend that journalists familiarise themselves with the The Treasury Green Book as its will add spice to any future reporting on Cummings’ doings and a source of potential questions on his project work, if he ever deigns to sit down for an interview.

    The Government’s approach to Brexit would fail a Green Book appraisal, but then so would Brexit, because as Cummings admits it was a project built on emotion and not facts.

    And now, in Government, he wants to adopt a ruthless, fact driven approach to projects. Clearly, he is unfamiliar with the fact that, in particular, capital projects, for example widening a road tend to attract strong emotional responses that manifest themselves in various ways, resulting in say pledges to lie (but not down?) in front of the bulldozers to placate one’s constituents.

    How long before an anguished cry echoes around Westminster from its elected members, “Will no one rid us of this turbulent SpAd???”

    Dom has said:

    “a new government with a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity” may try “to make rapid progress with long-term problems.”

    Another meaning of SPAD is a signal passed at danger.

    1. “Signal passed at danger”

      Very apposite.

      And now I’m stuck trying to map our current Government of all the Talentless onto the Reverend W. Awdry’s greatest creations.

      One thing’s for sure, the only people who’ll be describing our PM as “useful” any time soon are his Fat/Thin/Small Controllers at Tufton Street (although they’d probably add “idiot” to that description)

  3. Thinking outside the box to avoid stagnation and to harvest new ideas in order stay on top is not problematic In itself. But when a chain of command or group is largely unaccountable for their actions or decisions at the centre of Government then l have problems with it since they cannot be unelected or easily disciplined.
    Such groups/ persons cannot be easily scrutinised and thereby l cannot wait for this ‘Government of Misinformation’ and Gaslighting to fall. I hope the Sumpreme Court can stand strong, for l fear there is little desire left in the media or in the Brexit electorate, to be outraged by or challenge the lies and breaches this Government has covered itself in.

    Read both articles and found them informative and sobering. Good reads, appreciated

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