Illustration for Financial Times Weekend comment - issue dated 30.05.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

In 2017, after Theresa May had been forced to sack her two powerful chiefs of staff, I was rung up by a former colleague still working in the prime minister’s Downing Street team. “I think they’re back” she whispered. “Someone just saw them go into the flat”.

Whether this was true, and whether it was more than just a comforting cup of tea with a former boss, this story says a great deal about the fear and loathing that can build up around senior prime ministerial advisers. After the disastrous general election, angry MPs forced Mrs May to depose Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, believing — I think rightly — that she would be incapable of changing her leadership style while in their grip.

What upsets people about Dominic Cummings, the current prime minister’s chief adviser, is not only his dash to Durham. It is also the phenomenal power he wields while unelected. Privately, ministers grumble that Boris Johnson would never risk so much to back them. But that’s because Mr Cummings is so valuable. Precisely because he has raised the stakes so high, this is a battle that Mr Johnson must win: to lose him now would be a personal defeat.

Mr Cummings is better known than many predecessors, immortalised by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the television drama Brexit: The Uncivil War. But he is part of a long-running trend. Many US presidents, and more recently UK prime ministers, have relied on informal entourages. The pejorative term “kitchen cabinet” was coined in 19th-century America by opponents of Andrew Jackson, resenting his reliance on confidants. It gained currency in the UK in the 1960s, when Harold Wilson sought to emulate John F Kennedy by creating an inner circle of clever operators like Bernard Donoghue and Marcia Williams.

Prime ministers turn to advisers because they have surprisingly few powers and few staff. Many are shocked, on entering 10 Downing Street, to discover what a constant struggle it is to exert a grip over the rest of Whitehall. When Tony Blair took power, he doubled the number of special advisers, relying heavily on Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell. Mr Powell’s role, chief of staff, was a new creation, based on the US model, to marry foreign and domestic policy.

While Mr Powell worked quietly and effectively in the trenches for the entire 10 years of the Blair government, the bombastic Mr Campbell was forced out in 2003 over Iraq. Mr Blair fought to keep him, not least as a valuable ally against the unrelenting attacks from his next-door neighbour, the then-chancellor Gordon Brown. Sometimes in politics, your most dangerous opponents are within.

David Cameron was equally reluctant to lose Andy Coulson, his director of communications, accused in 2011 of involvement in a phone hacking scandal. In her memoir, The Gatekeeper, Mr Cameron’s deputy chief of staff Kate Fall recalls how wrenching Mr Coulson’s resignation was for his boss. “We travelled the uncertain road to Downing Street with Andy,” she wrote. “We rely on his advice and good judgment. Most painfully of all, he is our friend.”

Why do leaders forge such intimate relationships, which can become liabilities? Governing is a supremely intense and lonely business, lived at warp speed. In the UK, reliance on advisers is amplified by the two-yearly rotation of civil servants in and out of Number 10: an incoming prime minister may lose some of their most experienced officials only months after arriving. Political advisers also protect civil service impartiality by helping leaders do what officials cannot: gain public support for a policy or handle parliament.

Mr Cummings has become indispensable not only because of his strong personal bond with Mr Johnson. He also delivers. He masterminded the victorious Brexit referendum campaign and helped Mr Johnson win his parliamentary majority. In 2010, he drove Michael Gove’s radical school reforms. Whatever you think of him, he is extraordinarily effective. So he stays in post: the government has Covid-19 to deal with and a set of hugely important decisions to make.

It is notoriously difficult to keep an adviser once they become the story — they are supposed to be invisible. When you enter Downing Street as a political adviser, as I did in 2015 to head the policy unit, you disappear. You pop in and out by the back door and try to avoid the cameras at the front. Constitutionally, that’s fine: it is the prime minister who is accountable and the deal is that you will leave when he or she does. But it does amplify the uncomfortable feeling that shadowy characters wield too much influence.

As the number of special advisers continues to grow, there is a gap in accountability. Watching Mr Cummings give a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden felt surreal, but it was, in some ways, a necessary concession. Of course, transparency creates its own problems: Mr Powell recalls that Mr Campbell kept wanting to give evidence to committees, and that “we kept stopping him”. Having British advisers appear on television, as they do in the US, would make them spokespeople, and spawn another layer of secret faces behind. But while leaders usually govern better when they have able, loyal advisers, trust in politics is not helped by the sense of power without scrutiny.

It seems unlikely that Mr Cummings can survive the full five years of this government. But he is a radical, not a lifer. Last year he stated his ambition was to make himself “largely redundant” by reforming Whitehall. I predict that he will stick around long enough to do just that.

Letter in response to this article:

A Socratic reading casts doubt on Cummings’ ‘effectiveness’ / From Dr William Dixon, City, University of London, London, UK

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