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

12th November 2020

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 but 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.


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 an 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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24 thoughts on “Politics versus policy, and why the approach of Johnson and Cummings to exercising power is going so badly”

  1. The first sentence makes no sense; for politics read policy (once). And lower down there’s a “too” for a “to”.

  2. I should have read the title, but just plunged in, and was momentarily thrown (in the U.K. English sense of momentarily) by the juxtaposition of approach to politics and approach to (er) politics in the opening paragraph, so it took me a little longer than it should have to get into this, but once there, I found myself nodding in agreement.

    Oddly, however, I also found my mind drifting back to the Blair years where a ‘disregard for the settled norms and practices of conventional politics’ was a similar feature of his government’s political approach (he was very good, however, at identifying the incrusted features of the establishment that needed shaking up and changing), but sadly surprisingly poor at envisaging alternative, more workable, policies to put in the place of the structures he’d begun to dismantle (Lords reform, the proper separation of powers between a state and an independent judiciary, and dozens of other half-baked projects that mostly still fester today: each made claims of oven ready replacements, and each signally failed to deliver).

  3. Not bothered by typos. This comment amplified something I was thinking this morning – I am quite old now and have actively followed politics as long as I can remember.
    All the administrations in my lifetime have made terrible decisions, some of them have actively sought outcomes that ran against my personal beliefs and priorities. But none of them have been obviously incompetent.
    I assume that straightforward people who don’t obsess about politics and policies (and why should they) have never factored in likely competence when deciding who to vote for – the machine would move on as expected more or less.
    This feels different: possibly because some in inner circle really believe in wrecking government to release magic solutions. Not Johnson- think he is like Trump exclusively motivated by being famous to prove he is alive.

  4. Let he who is without typos cast the first stone…

    More relevantly, it seems to me that, contrary to Lee Cain’s remarks, the central problem is an utter lack of leadership from Johnson. One could be forgiven for seeing him merely as a spokesman with the likes of Cummings being the directing minds. He is often characterised as “lazy” and “not interested in detail”, both traits which place power in the hands of his entourage and, indeed, fiancee. It, of course, explains why he would not part with Cummings over the Barnard Castle affair. In its way, this is as worrying an issue for a democracy as Trump’s machinations across the Atlantic.

  5. Your statement that “[p]opulism can succeed in elections and referendums, and it has recently done so, but it cannot deal with hard policy” is a very powerful point. And it is a difficult one to tackle.

    It has been said repeatedly of late that those opposed to populism need to stop mocking the intelligence and education of people voting for it. Whilst this is true – as these actions are never going to achieve changing people’s views – what should we be doing instead? Rational arguments don’t work (look at the 2016 referendum or the waver-thin margins in some of the US states last week). And Starmer can show Johnson’s constantly failing policies at PMQs every week, but Johnson will still keep his core support. So I am unsure what that leaves us with.

  6. When Johnson was Mayor of London he was well known for his inability to absorb detail in his decision making process . The current Mayor has the opposite problem , the ability to adsorb in depth detail that also impairs his decision response As he drowning in information .
    Now J is prime minister his short comings which have followed him throughout his life are come to the fore and hurting seriously his ability to govern for all the UK . Jo

  7. Hmm…
    I don’t think they disregard policy. In fact, as good “populists” like to do everywhere and every time, they regard policy as a means to:
    1. Expand their access to power,
    2. Reward their “friends/allies”, thereby contributing to point 1.

    To understand what counts as success or failure for an agent, it’s useful to try understanding the agent goals.
    What looks like the utter failure of this government to you and me might look like a huge success to the eyes of some people within the government…

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