Back in December 2014, nearly a year after leaving his role as special advisor to Michael Gove, Number 10 puppet master Cummings wrote a blog post, shortened for a Times opinion piece, which provides a glimpse into his ambitions for government.
Tackling what can be done to “improve” the institutions of government, the man who now serves as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser divulges some pretty radical ideas.
Contrary to popular belief, Cummings isn’t really keen on developing our “special relationship” with America – casting aside, in his words, both “the romantic pursuit of ‘the special relationship’ and the deluded pursuit of a leading EU role”.
Another of his aims contains revealing details for what is already starting to happen at Whitehall. He wants to “open political institutions to people and ideas from outside [Westminster]”.
How? Like this:
“First, a Prime Minister should be able to appoint Secretaries of State from outside Parliament.
“How? A quick and dirty solution would be: a) shove them in the Lords, b) give Lords ministers ‘rights of audience’ in the Commons, c) strengthen the Select Committee system.”
This is already underway, with Nicky Morgan given a life peerage and keeping her role as Culture Secretary. It’s rumoured that Zac Goldsmith, the Minister of State for the Environment, may also keep his spot in government and be given a life peerage after he lost his seat in Richmond Park.
“Second, the 150 year experiment with a permanent civil service should end and Whitehall must open to outsiders. The role of Permanent Secretary should go and ministers should appoint departmental chief executives so they are really responsible for policy and implementation.
“Expertise should be brought in as needed with no restrictions from the destructive civil service ‘human resources’ system that programmes government to fail.”
This objective is already being briefed to journalists, with The Sunday Times (paywall) reporting that the Christmas break will be used to create a strategy to overhaul Whitehall and the civil service, suggesting that “new rules on senior civil servants will ensure it is easier to recruit external experts from business and other sectors to serve alongside career mandarins.”
“Third, Whitehall’s functions should be amputated. The Department for Education improved as Gove shrank it. Other departments would benefit from extreme focus, simplification, and firing thousands of overpaid people. If the bureaucracy ceases to be ‘permanent’, it can adapt quickly. Instead of obsessing on process, distorting targets, and micromanaging methods, it could shift to incentivising goals and decentralising methods.”
Likewise, this aim is also being briefed to journalists. Suggestions have been made that the Department for International Development could be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Trade folded into the Department for Business. The Department for Exiting the European Union will close on 31st January.
“Fourth, existing legal relationships with the EU and ECHR must change. They are incompatible with democratic and effective government.”
The UK’s departure from the EU seems all but certain now, which would achieve the first objective. As for the UK’s relationship with the European Convention of Human Rights, that is a separate matter to Brexit. The Conservative manifesto does say they will “update the Human Rights Act”, the legislation enshrining the ECHR into British law, leaving it open as a possibility.
“Fifth, Number Ten must be reoriented from ‘government by punditry’ to a focus on the operational planning and project management needed to convert priorities to reality over months and years.”
The context for this ambition is Cummings’ view that the coalition government was run by a “tragi-comic press office with the prime minister acting as Über Pundit. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg see only the news’s flickering shadows on their cave wall – they cannot see the real world behind them.”
And no prizes for guessing who the senior figure might be in this excerpt from The Sunday Times: “Insiders say new ministers will be selected based on their expertise and ability to drive change rather than whether they are good media performers.
The article continues to quote the “senior figure” as saying: “It will be pretty big. It will be finding the people who can do the jobs and not worry about media and short-term things. We’re drawing up a very detailed and very revolutionary plan and then we are going to implement it.”
P.S. Cummings closes by noting that “technological changes such as genetic engineering and machine intelligence are bringing revolution. It would be better to undertake it than undergo it”, so we have that to look forward to, as well.