Cummings says reform of 'disaster zone' civil service was a condition for entering No.10

PM's former top aide tells MPs Department of Health had to be bypassed for coronavirus Vaccine Taskforce
Dominic Cummings outside No.10 Downing Street. Photo: Alamy

By Alain Tolhurst

18 Mar 2021

Dominic Cummings has said he had four conditions that he laid out at a meeting in his living room with Boris Johnson before agreeing to become the prime minister's chief adviser, including changing how Whitehall works.

Appearing before parliament's Science and Technology Committee yesterday morning, Cummings said the prime minister came to see him at his home the week before he entered No.10in July 2019 and asked him to join his administration as his chief adviser.

The controversial aide, who has been a long-standing critic of the civil service, explained how he said yes in exchange for a promise from Johnson to be able to set up a new research and development agency and to shake up the civil service.

Cummings said Johnson asked him whether he would "come into Downing Street to try and help sort out the huge Brexit nightmare".

Cummings agreed, but only if Johnson committed to meeting four key conditions.

"I said 'yes, if – first of all – you're deadly serious about actually getting Brexit done and avoiding a second referendum'," he told MPs.

"'Second, double the science budget, third, create some ARPA-like entity and, fourth, support me in trying to change how Whitehall works and the Cabinet Office work because it's a disaster zone’. And he said ‘deal’."

Cummings was giving evidence to the committee about the creation of his brainchild the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (Aria), which will be given £800m to identify and fund research into "high-risk, high-reward" science projects.

But Cummings insisted he will not have any involvement in the organisation, which has independence from government. 

"I wouldn't want to be involved. I shouldn't be involved," he continued. "The only way I could add any value would be if you picked the wrong people in the first place.

“If you pick the right people then what could I possibly contribute to it?”

He also used his first public appearance since leaving Downing Street under a cloud last autumn amid reports of falling outs between factions inside Number 10 to dismiss reports he received a 40% pay rise during the pandemic.

Cummings explained when he joined in the summer of 2019 he was put in the "normal pay band" for his position, meaning he would earn £140,000, but had asked to be paid less.

"I figured I should be paid the same for trying to sort out the Brexit mess as I was paid for doing Vote Leave,” he added.

"So I asked for a pay cut which is what happened in summer 2019."

A Cabinet office report for 2019 stated that Cummings earned a salary of between £95,000-£99,999, which rose to between £140,000-£144,999 in the 2020 report.

He explained after he was re-hired following the general election and then later restored to the normal pay grade, it then appeared "as if I got a pay rise after Covid”, but instead this was not a true reflection of the situation.

Cummings also used the committee hearing to criticise the Department of Health and Social Care, accusing it of being an "an absolute total disaster" in terms of procurement last year.

"It's why we had to take the vaccines process out of the Department of Health,” he claimed, referring to the independent task force overseen by Kate Bingham.

He added: "In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that.

"You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics.

"We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail – a debacle.

"Therefore Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me and some others said 'obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister’."

Alain Tolhurst is the chief reporter of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared

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