Michael Gove on No.10 adviser Dominic Cummings: blunt, original and not always right

Cabinet Office minister also reveals some top officials provided feedback to landmark reform speech
Dominic Cummings PA

By Richard Johnstone

06 Jul 2020

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has described what it is like to work with  Dominic Cummings in government, describing the prime minister’s chief adviser as a blunt and original thinker, but one who is not always right.

Speaking to Times Radio, Gove, who had Cummings as a special adviser in the Department for Education when he was implementing wide-ranging reforms to the schools system and also worked with him, alongside Johnson, in the successful Brexit campaign, told Michael Portillo on the station that “there is a tendency in politics to emulsify the discourse, to honey the words, to allow people sometimes to draw the wrong inference”.

However, he said that this is “never the case with Dom”. He added: “Well, Dominic has many many skills, but there are two skills that he particularly has - blistering honesty, and a real originality,  which are very precious.

“He is blunt. He's blunt to the prime minister and to me and to others, not disrespectful, but honest, and that is helpful. The other thing is that he's an original  thinker, that doesn't mean that he's always right. None of us are. But it does mean that he is free from groupthink. And because he is, he recognises the value of having a dissident voice in the room. There are some in politics who prefer every meeting to essentially be a chorus of approval. The thing with Dom is that he does want to hear the discordant note.”

Gove said Cummings was a professional and “courteous to those that are working hard and are committed”.

However, he said there is a difference between “what politicians should learn and what advisors should do”.

He added: “The great thing about Dom is that he is not a public facing figure. He doesn't particularly seek or want attention. He just wants to make things work and he's prepared to be direct in challenging those things he thinks don't work.”

Asked by Portillo if the government’s plans for civil service reform – most clearly elucidated in a speech by Gove last week – would suffer because they are so closely associated with Cummings, who gained notoriety after appearing to break coronavirus lockdown rules, Gove said: “I don't think so.

“I think in my experience so far people are interested in Dominic and his ideas. They wanted to make sure that not just Dominic, but that the prime minister, [No.10 policy chief] Munira Mirza, Rishi Sunak and the teams behind them are properly engaged, that their ideas and that their ambition are properly reflected in what government does.”

Raising the enduring nature of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1854 that stil form the basis of how the civil service works, Portillo asked how he planned to create a broader consensus for what he labelled the  Gove-Cummings plan.

Gove said that the principles of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms – that the civil service should be highly professional, independent, and chosen on a meritocratic basis – endure and are “one one of the things that make the UK civil service so envied”.

He added: “Beyond that, people will focus attention on me because I gave a speech and Dominic because, you know, he has a certain media profile. Actually, the work that we're doing is work that is shared with and endorsed by other politicians and people in the civil service.”

He revealed that his speech on reform, where he proposed better training, more rigorous evaluation of programmes and greater incentives to stay in key roles, had been shared with top officials.

“Before I gave the speech that I gave at the weekend. I shared with some permanent secretaries and other civil servants. They didn't agree with everything you need, but they understood what it is that we were trying to do, and I altered the speech to an extent as a result of the feedback from them, because we want to make sure that it's a collective endeavour.”

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