Cummings: ‘I brought Simon Case back into government because PM wasn’t listening to me’

Former No.10 top adviser calls for civil service recruitment changes, including opening up more senior roles to external candidates
Dominic Cummings Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

27 May 2021

Dominic Cummings has claimed that Simon Case returned to government last year in order to lead the government’s coronavirus response because of a breakdown in the top adviser’s relationship with the prime minister.

In the second part of his evidence before a joint session of the health and social care and science and technology select committees yesterday, the prime minister’s former top adviser said  that his influence diminished after Boris Johnson won a general election victory in December 2019.

“The whole idea that I was the second most powerful person in the country and I could just, you know, click my fingers and do this and that, was just completely wrong,” he said.

He said that the relationship foundered further during the coronavirus response because “fundamentally the prime minister and I did not agree about Covid”.

He said that following the first lockdown across the UK last March, the prime minister concluded that the “lesson to be learned is we shouldn't have done the lockdown, we should have focused on the economy, it was all a disaster”.

Cummings said that he “thought that perspective was completely mad”, but that he “had very little influence on Covid stuff” as a result.

“I made arguments, but as you can see on pretty much all the major arguments, I basically lost,” highlighting issues around creating a stricter quarantine border policy related to Covid, as well as the delay on the initial lockdown.

“What I therefore did in the summer was I brought in Simon Case to be permanent secretary at No.10 because I thought the prime minister is not listening to me on this whole subject. Our relations are getting worse and worse.

Cummings said he thought: “If I bring in someone official to take over on Covid that will a) make things better and b) maybe he'll listen better to Simon Case than he will to me”.

Case first returned to government in May last year on secondment from his role as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's private secretary to lead the government’s coronavirus response. He was then named as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service in September, replacing Sir Mark Sedwill.

Cummings said that his plan for Case to take on the Covid role “to some extent did happen”, meaning that the No.10 special adviser did not spend a lot of time on the government’s coronavirus response between May and July last year, instead focusing on other issues including defence, science and technology, procurement reform, and planning regulations. He said he focused on “all of these sorts of things where I tried to use what influence I had where either the prime minister agreed with me, or he didn't really care, in which case I could push things on”.

Elsewhere in the session Cummings said “tens of thousands of people died, who didn't need to die” due to the inadequacy of the government response. He said health secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for lying during the coronavirus pandemic and that the first Covid lockdown was delayed because there was “no proper plan” in place. The former adviser also set out his main conclusions for the committee’s lessons-learned review.

His conclusions included opening up the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to greater scrutiny to tackle the groupthink around policy, which last March was that there would be a single peak to obtain herd immunity through infection or a delay of infections that could lead to a larger second wave.

He also called for civil service recruitment changes, including greater flexibility to create teams around specific areas of response.

“When you're dealing with a really serious thing like this you need to get a great team that knows exactly what the goal is and exactly who's responsible for what,” he said. “The Whitehall culture of responsibility is deliberately diffuse and that is intrinsically hostile to high performance management,” he added.

Cummings said there should be greater flexibility to bring people into government and claimed many Whitehall jobs are not openly advertised.

“The HR system should change so that all appointments, with a tiny fraction of security oddities, should be open by default,” he said.

“We've got so many brilliant people in this country. And then we have a civil service system, which literally puts a massive barrier and says, ‘we're going to recruit all these things from internally’.

“It's a completely crackers way of doing things, again during this thing we have to go out and get external people to come in and provide all kinds of crucial skills, but that shouldn't be just something that you do because there's a crisis, the British system should be open so that we can get the best people in the country to the best jobs.”

Cummings said that he knew from conversations “there are lots of senior people who agree with me, but part of Whitehall will fight to the death to stop a culture of open by default jobs, and if you plan on changing the system, that's one of the most crucial [changes]”.

However, the Institute for Government’s programme director Alex Thomas highlighted that all senior civil servant jobs are already advertised open by default. “Could argue for fewer exceptions, not do as many managed moves, open up non SCS jobs but... this is not a silver bullet for reform,” he added on Twitter.

 

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