Dominic Cummings to leave government by Christmas

High-profile adviser who had vision for civil service reform insists departure not linked to No.10 infighting
Dominic Cummings arrives in Downing Street after news of his departure PA

By Richard Johnstone

13 Nov 2020

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s controversial senior adviser who has been leading a civil service reform drive and gained notoriety for a lockdown-busting trip earlier this year, is to depart government at the end of the year.

Cummings re-entered government as the top adviser to Boris Johnson when he became prime minister last July, having previously worked as a special adviser to Michael Gove at the Department for Education. Cummings famously led the Vote Leave campaign and entered government in 2019 with the aim to “Get Brexit Done” then lead a civil service reform plan. He had famously argued that the concept of a permanent civil service was “an idea for history books” and proposed the abolition of the role of permanent secretaries in his vision for civil service reform, set out in 2014.

News of his looming departure was revealed by both the BBC and Sky News this morning, and has been confirmed by transport secretary Grant Shapps. He said that although he had not always agreed with the adviser, he would be missed in government. “You need people to shake things up,” he told Sky News.

A senior Downing Street source told the BBC that Cummings would be "out of government" by Christmas. Cummings said that his departure was not linked to the resignation of Lee Cain, the prime minister’s head of communications. Cain left after a backlash to the prime minister’s plans to name him as chief of staff, but Cummings said that "rumours of me threatening to resign [in response to the row] are invented".

But he added that his "position hasn't changed since my January blog". In his infamous call for “weirdos and misfits” to join government, he also said that there was a need to improve performance across government to “make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant”.

He wrote at the time: “At the moment I have to make decisions well outside what Charlie Munger calls my ‘circle of competence’ and we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so we can properly serve the public.”

Reform drive

Cummings has been at the centre of developing civil service reform plans, which began in earnest after the Conservative election victory last December. In a blog in January, he said: “It is obvious that improving government requires vast improvements in project management. The first project will be improving the people and skills already here.”

As well as improving the skills of government, Cummings planned to encourage more people to stay in civil service roles longer. “One of the problems with the civil service is the way in which people are shuffled such that they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know to do something else. One Friday, X is in charge of special needs education, the next week X is in charge of budgets,” he wrote in the job ad.

The reform plans were formally set out by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in June, when the Cabinet Office minister said he wanted better training for officials, more rigorous evaluation of programmes and greater incentives to stay in key roles. They prompted civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm's call for feedback from officials on a “prospectus” for reform that promised to look at changes across “the whole system, at every level”.

Cummings himself was reported to have said in June that “a hard rain” was coming” for Whitehall, and that reforms would make “the centre of government smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals to improve performance”.

However, Cummings's departure comes before the full direction of reforms is clear, with Gove having said in September that he is working on a paper to put “flesh on the thin bones” of what he said at in his June Ditchley Lecture.

Johnson stood by Cummings when he broke the lockdown rules to drive to his family to stay on his parents’ property in Durham after his wife contracted coronavirus. He said the move was intended to ensure there was childcare available for his son if he became ill.

Cummings also admitted to taking a further 30-minute journey to Barnard Castle – saying he had wanted to test that his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London.

Durham police said at the time that Cummings "might" have broken lockdown rules with the second journey, which the spad took after contracting and recovering from coronavirus.

In an unprecedented press conference authorised by the then-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Cummings defended his actions, saying he had acted “reasonably” and adding: “"I don't regret what I did."

The furore was found to have shaken public confidence in the government's ability to handle the coronavirus crisis, and Sedwill later said that the trip had “undermined” the lockdown message.

Spad moves

Cummings has also been accused of centralising the cadre of government special advisers as a way to circumvent civil service recruitment rules when it launched a website, spadjobs.uk, to coordinate special adviser recruitment.

He also sacked one of then-chancellor Sajid Javid’s special advisers, Sonia Khan, leading Khan to begin action against the government in an employment tribunal. Javid later resigned over a separate plan to merge the No.10 and No.11 Downing Street special adviser teams, a move reportedly instigated by Cummings.

In a separate development, it was announced yesterday that Khan had reached a settlement with the Treasury.

She said in a statement: “Following 14 months of negotiation, I have today reached a settlement with the Treasury, my former employer, and as a result I am no longer pursuing my employment tribunal claim which was due to be heard in London in December.

“I would like to thank the FDA who have supported this action and were instrumental in finding a settlement, alongside their legal advisers Slater and Gordon.

“Having reached a settlement of these issues I am now moving on with my life and career. I have a fulfilling job as a consultant, I maintain great affection for the Conservative Party and remain a committed Conservative. The party took me under its wing when I was a teen and I feel hugely privileged to have served as a special adviser under the last two prime ministers.”  

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