Johnson and Cummings thought their inherent exceptionalism would prevail over Covid. They failed time and again

Lee Cain said Covid was “the wrong crisis" for Boris Johnson’s "skill set”. The phrase will hang round Johnson’s neck like a VW emblem on a Beastie Boy
"It’s one of those phrases that is going to hang round Johnson’s neck like a VW emblem on a Beastie Boy." Photo: Ross Marino Archive/MediaPunch

By Dave Penman

06 Nov 2023

The Covid Inquiry still has too long to run and too much evidence to consider to start jumping to conclusions. What we witnessed last week, however, gave us a glimpse into a world we rarely see – the inner workings of the centre of government. And, lets’s face it, it wasn’t pretty.

In his evidence,  former Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain said  of Boris Johnson that Covid was “the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skill set”. It’s one of those phrases that the moment you hear it you know is going to hang round  Johnson’s neck like a VW emblem on a Beastie Boy. What was less clear was: what type of crisis would be his skill set?

The picture painted by Cain, Dominic Cummings, Helen MacNamara, and the various WhatsApp group chats, was one of total chaos around Johnson and his No.10 operation, long before Covid swept through our shores. At the point when we needed the centre of government to work effectively it had already been dismantled.

Cabinet government was a distant memory. Johnson had surrounded himself with loyalists and centralised power at No.10. Who remembers now the changes to the contracts for special advisers which made Cummings, not ministers, directly managing them and responsible for their “discipline”?

The FDA briefly considered a judicial review of that decision and exchanged correspondence with government on it. I recall a conversation with a senior official at the time and suggested they were essentially being turned in to No.10 narks. It was early on in the Johnson era and I was told politely that it was just a different way of working. Six months later that same official told me I was bang on.

Cummings’ evidence made clear the contempt that he held for most of the cabinet. Weekly meetings were held where he lambasted the spads about their ministers. The chancellor Sajid Javid resigned rather than accept No.10 imposed special advisers. He had of course previously had one spad, Sonia Khan, marched out of Downing Street by Cummings, after being summarily dismissed without any consultation. Enter stage right, one Rishi Sunak.

To be fair to Cummings, he held everyone in contempt. Cabinet Office was a “dumpster fire”. The Sunday Telegraph had published their “shit list” of permanent secretaries who were to be fired. The cabinet secretary, Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds – everyone Cummings met was useless. Asked if anyone was any good, Cummings replied that British special forces were “exceptional”. Of course that’s what he’d answer; it’s exactly what he thought of himself, the special force in government, there to ride over the hill to save the day. Except, of course, he didn’t.

After years of theorising about government, Cummings and his enabler Johnson couldn’t actually govern. It’s easy to pick holes in the civil service and dismiss the institutions and individuals as dysfunctional and over-promoted. Much more difficult to actually make things work. They thought they were the only ones who were competent to run things and as long as everything important ran through them, their inherent exceptionalism would prevail. They created a central point of failure that failed time and again. A prime minister who couldn’t make decisions and wasn’t interested in detail. A small cabal of individuals without broader experience or perspective. It was always going to fail. Any of Cummings’s gurus could have told him that.

"It’s easy to pick holes in the civil service and dismiss the institutions and individuals as dysfunctional and over-promoted. Much more difficult to actually make things work"

With their open contempt for everyone, constant undermining, threats and ridicule, they were a Frat Pack. If you were pitching a screenplay about it to movie executives, you’d ask them to imagine The Inbetweeners set in a private school, crossed with the Thick of It. I spoke to officials at the time who talked of just how horrid, dysfunctional and nasty it was at the centre of government. Some stayed and tried to make things work, many left and a number were forced out.

Governing is difficult at the best of times. Getting the best out of the civil service is part of the job of ministers and advisers. Building strong teams, as any successful entrepreneur will tell you is vital. It’s not about being nice, it’s about being effective.

There was one exchange that for me summed up this entire period. The now-infamous expletive-ridden message from Cummings about former deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara. The tone and language tells you everything you need to know about their approach to any individual who they take against and despite his protestations that he’s just a horrible human being to everyone, it drips with misogynistic bile.

The message was in response to a demand that Cummings dealt with the employment tribunal for Sonia Khan and, checks notes, “tell the truth”. Full disclosure, the FDA was supporting Khan in this case. This issue was entirely the responsibility of Cummings. He sacked her without any clear process. They had a chance to settle early but despite advice that it was in the taxpayers interest to settle, they refused, resulting in a ministerial direction to John Manzoni, then permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office.

So the proceedings were pending and Cummings thought he was too important to have to deal with such trivial matters as a court case. He was busy saving the world, or not as it turns out.

An entirely avoidable problem created by him becuase he was too arrogant to resolve earlier, and here he was whining on in vile, abhorrent language about officials who were trying to clear up his mess. Not very special forces, is it?

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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