With the pandemic, its economic fallout and Brexit, the next six months may well determine Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fate © Jack Hill/Pool/Reuters

In Whitehall the bodies are stacking up like an episode of Inspector Morse. Five permanent secretaries, including the UK’s most senior official, have been dispatched. The organisation responsible for public health is being dismembered. The head of the exams regulator has gone following a fiasco over A-level grades.

This is the “hard rain” that Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief strategist, promised would fall on the “blob” — his name for the civil service which he says resists real change. The blob is this government’s equivalent of the illuminati: an all-powerful force to be blamed for all failures.

Delayed virus testing was due to Public Health England; A level results: the exam regulator Ofqual; failure to reopen schools before summer: the education department’s permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater. Not one minister has joined this exodus.

The shortcomings of the Whitehall machine are real. The imminent appointment of Simon Case, the permanent secretary at Downing Street who has been modernising the Number 10 operation, as the new head of the civil service is seen by Mr Cummings as part of the mission to reshape Britain’s bureaucracy.

But Whitehall’s true sin in Downing Street’s eyes is not poor co-ordination but caution. This government is not afraid of contrary advice. It is afraid of inaction. This creed was explicitly set out in a lecture by cabinet office minister Michael Gove, when he explained how his failures as education secretary were in fact successes because they led to better ideas. You break things and solve the problems in real time.

This is accountability, Johnson-style. In the civil service, heads roll. But when ministers fail, well, that’s the price of progress. The great crime is lack of zeal, not lack of competence. Just look at the home office.

Yet revolutions demand competence as well as zeal. The coming six months may well determine Mr Johnson’s fate. He must manage the next wave of pandemic, its economic fallout and the dislocations of Brexit.

Allies will argue that his poll rating is only a little lower than it was at the election. When one considers the stumbles on track and trace, the shambles over quarantine, the terrible death toll, as well as a number of other retreats, those who voted for Mr Johnson are still fairly forgiving of errors. But that forbearance will be tested. One politically sympathetic former cabinet minister worries: “We have a government which is great at campaigning but can’t run anything.”

Many of the mistakes are political as much as organisational. But this government protects its ministers even as it burns their subordinates. (Scotland had a similar exams fiasco. The Scottish National Party’s minister did not resign either, but nor were officials purged).

Yet what might Mr Cummings say if he turned his critical eye on his own ministerial team? That this is a government that focuses on the big picture but neglects the details. It is good at breaking things but not yet at rebuilding. It is too attracted to moonshots and too uninterested in incremental advances. That too many ministers are too weak and too cowed by Downing Street to act on their own initiative.

If the government is to succeed on its own terms, it needs to be as demanding of its ministers as it is of its officials. They must be brave and they must lead. They must ask the right questions of advisers and carry the party and the public with them. How are they monitoring delivery and measuring success? You cannot govern by exhortation alone. Pointing to a hill that has to be captured is not the same as taking it.

The same holds for party management. Tory MPs are fed up with being sent out to defend a position only to find ministers have caved in two days later. They see a government that can be pushed around. The parliamentary majority of 80 is nothing like the cushion it should be especially with the difficult decisions ahead. 

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Mr Cummings’ and Mr Gove’s solution is to place their faith in a strong central operation in Downing Street and the cabinet office and more can-do civil servants. But you cannot take the politics out of governing. You cannot neglect party management or work round the cabinet. The best guarantor of change — and of retaining party support — is a committed, capable and confident secretary of state. Yet this is an enfeebled cabinet. Only Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Mr Gove are commanding figures. Some others are solid but few show the inspirational traits now demanded of senior civil servants. Ideology is no substitute for ability.

It is natural in the early stages of a revolution to huddle together with your allies. Removing underperforming ministers carries a political cost but it is rarely as high as leaving them in place. The next months will be hard. If Messrs Cummings and Gove (and indeed Mr Johnson) are serious about their transformation then there is one more blob to which they must turn their attention.


Letter in response to this column:

Blame must be shared across UK health service / From Patrick Paul, Mid Levels, Hong Kong

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