Politics versus policy, and why the approach of Johnson and Cummings to exercising power is going so badly

12th November 2020

(This is the corrected version of the previous post, for email subscribers.)

The current government of the United Kingdom has a distinctive approach to politics, and it has a distinctive approach to policy.

In both cases the approach is associated with the government’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister Boris Johnson.

The approach to politics has as a feature a disregard for the settled norms and practices of conventional politics: elections and referendums are there to be won, and it matters little about how that is done.

It is a focused and, in terms of both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election, a successful approach.

And because of this approach, they have power and their critics, however justified do not.

The approach to policy is similar, and can also be characterised as moving fast and breaking things.

There is no need for formal consultation exercises or procurement procedures, it is enough for there to just be central direction and directives.

And any policy will be formulated and implemented not by the traditional civil service in its traditional way, but by external hires and special advisers.

It is an approach which is not so much contrarian  as indifferent to how policy was made and done previously.

But the lack of structure and the constant sense of rush comes at a cost, and because of that cost such an approach may be unsustainable in the medium to longer term.

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There are currently news reports about a resignation of a Downing Street adviser and of general dysfunction around the prime minister.

And this would be bad at any time.

It would be very bad if the United Kingdom faced just one major challenge – either a pandemic or the imminent departure from the European Union in practice (though technically the departure was back in January), with or without a deal.

But for this disarray to happen in the midst of a resurgent pandemic (and a second lockdown, that in and of itself will be widely devastating), and days away from the end of the Brexit transition period, is about as bad as politics and policy can be in peacetime.

At the base of the current predicament is a lack of seriousness about policy.

Whether it be the self-inflicted problem of Brexit or the force majeure of a pandemic, the government at its most senior level has not taken policy making and implementation seriously.

This is because policy is just regarded as politics as other means.

And, in turn, this comes down to populism – which can be described as the promotion of easy answers in exchange for electoral support.

Populism can succeed in elections and referendums, and it has recently done so, but it cannot deal with hard policy.

And therein is the contradiction forcing the current political chaos: what works in obtaining power can often be the very reason why being in power then goes so badly.

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8 thoughts on “Politics versus policy, and why the approach of Johnson and Cummings to exercising power is going so badly”

  1. Thank you. The electorate’s ready acceptance of alternative facts has enabled Johnson and his cabal to bring us to this point. Where next is the obvious question.

      1. I think Trump provided some useful cover for Johnson that won’t be available from Biden so I expect that fish will be sacrificed for a trade deal and a deal no better than May’s. No deal is no longer a viable option, if it ever was.

  2. “He would be crown’d:
    How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
    It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
    And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
    And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
    That at his will he may do danger with.
    The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
    Remorse from power ….. ’tis a common proof,
    That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
    Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
    But when he once attains the upmost round.
    He then unto the ladder turns his back,
    Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
    By which he did ascend. …..”

    Brutus, Act II, Scene 1, Julius Caesar

  3. This is absolutely on the button. I read a Cummings blog in which he referenced the Manhattan Project’s disregard for administrative norms as an exemplar of effective policy implementation. And it is surely telling that one of his early ventures was to try to establish an airline in the Wild West of immediately post-Communist Russia. (He seems not to have taken on board the obvious lesson from the fact that it achieved only one flight with no passengers.) I suppose the basic idea is that, if careful planning and administration gets things as wrong as the current UK national economic imbalance (to take one example), why bother? Why not move fast and break things. Or more generously, bureaucracy tends to make the best the enemy of the good. But such a hung-ho approach to the complexities of 21st century politics and economics is desperately unsafe, as I fear the county is increasingly discovering. The problem with moving fast and breaking things in governance is that the things that get broken are people’s lives.

  4. I think part of this may be down to Cummings’ ‘techno-populist’ approach where he attempts to borrow terms of art from technology fields without understanding them in any depth.

    Agile methods (behind the oft used phrase move fast and break things) are underpinned by important principals including detailed understanding of user needs, focussed teams working a fast-but-sustainable pace, constant testing of ideas (strong ideas held lightly) and self-organising teams. None of which are evident in Cummings’/Johnson’s approach

    It feels to me that Cummings is making a centralisation play dressed up as a new approach, much as he did when using ‘Superforcasting’ as an excuse to ditch actual experts in favour of generalists with a huge degree of self confidence.

  5. The internal motto of Facebook was “Move fast and break things” (that is, get things done quickly even if the result might not be perfect, and adapt them quickly to make them better). Was, until 2014, just after its 10th birthday. Now the business is more mature, it is “Move fast with stable infrastructure”. Perhaps Cummings may want to try that.

    Moving fast and breaking things may work for a social media start-up , but it is no use for a pandemic response, when the “things” being “broken” are people.

  6. Control is not far from Stalinism minus the endless executions, especially of Tories.
    The impending departure of Cummings and Cain indicates their system is broken. Their departure heralds the departure of a large number of other Leave Campaign advisers in their wake (their extraordinary large presence in Downing Street is evidence of a sort of coup, their way paved by hardline Brexiteers in Parliament (it’s interesting that two former leaders and Brexiteers of the party Duncan Smith and Michael Howard air diametrically oppose each other on breaking international law).
    So all this indicates either a turning point in government or a collapse, either slow or fast, of the Johnson government; the onset of the real departure from the EU, the election of President-elect Joe Biden. The impact of full Brexit and the initial impact, followed by knock-on effects on companies, consumption, jobs, families and entire communities, on top of the pandemic, may well be such as to create conditions for another General Election. Since the Brexit situation has been created by the choice of a succession of Tory leaders there is a strong case for a judicial inquiry into the entirety of Brexit. It may well be such that if the impact were imposed by a foreign power it would be regarded as a serious act of aggression.
    This scenario may well have encouraged Cummings to quit Downing Street and leave all the blame for Johnson to own..

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