Move Fast and Break Democracy

Comment National Issues

Image description: The Whitehall sign, which reads: ‘Whitehall, SW1, City of Westminster’. 

Dominic Cummings left 10 Downing Street as he entered it — through the front door, with the nation’s cameras watching. 

A special advisor, he enjoyed unusual influence in a PM’s team, and a higher public profile than many senior frontbenchers. We should all be delighted that his SW1 career has finally ended – from the start, Cummings undermined vital democratic norms and stoked division for personal gain. While in government, he was largely ineffectual.

As far as campaigning, Cummings did as he promised: upsetting political convention and bringing unorthodox thinking to disrupt outdated methods of the status quo. 

He gave greater importance to data and science, bringing in physicists to develop a more advanced polling system through leveraging machine learning to more accurately predict the views of ultra-specific demographics.

This data was then channelled to develop and experiment with digital advertisements. Cummings estimates that “7 million people saw …1.5 billion” advertisements near the campaign’s end.

From his earliest campaigns, Cummings deliberately distorted statistics to mislead voters.

Arriving at Whitehall, Cummings sought to continue his innovation, promising a “hard rain” on the civil service. He called for more mathematicians and data scientists over Oxford’s humanities graduates and “public school bluffers” (despite being both); and wider cognitive diversity, inviting “weirdos and misfits”.

He planned to divide up the role of permanent secretaries, prevent bureaucrat meddling in ministers’ staff appointments, and institute ‘red teams’ to challenge decision-making within departments to ensure policies were properly thought through before being implemented. It’s unclear from outside how successful he was. 

What is clear, though, is the enormous harm Cummings caused in the process. His Silicon Valley attitude of “moving fast and breaking things” goaded him to undermine vital, well-established political norms and laws for momentary gain, with disastrous consequences for British democracy. 

From his earliest campaigns, Cummings deliberately distorted statistics to mislead voters. This wasn’t negligence — he said of Brexit, “we wanted to try and provoke the rage of the IN campaign into getting into a fight”.

A postcard he produced for ‘Business for Sterling’ compared the (annual) NHS budget with the (one-off) cost of joining the Euro using figures that have since been strongly contested. Leave’s most egregious claims included that the UK “sends” the EU £350m a week (‘a clear misuse of statistics’ according to the UK Statistics Authority) and that Turkey “is joining the EU” (which is unlikely to happen anytime soon).

To Cummings, electoral law was more “red tape”. The Information Commissioner’s Office fined Vote Leave £40,000 for transmitting around 20,000 unsolicited texts, and the Electoral Commission £61,000 for breaches of the rules about the financing of the campaign. These pale in comparison to Cummings’ abuses of political norms at Whitehall. 

Most egregious, of course, was Downing Street’s prorogation of parliament to prevent MPs from blocking its no-deal plans. Not only did this violate a fundamental democratic norm (that the executive respects parliamentary sovereignty and the need for scrutiny), it was also illegal. 

In February this year, Cummings undermined another crucial principle, that governments cannot choose their press, by attempting to exclude many left-wing journalists from official briefings. And another in September, that Parliament doesn’t breach its international commitments, with MPs’ passing of the Internal Markets Bill, which violates international law. 

Some would be laughable if they weren’t horrifying. Cummings’ “misfits and weirdos” turned out to be traditionally excluded for good reason — they were closer to eugenicists and racists.

Andrew Sabisky resigned after past remarks surfaced in which he called for forced contraception to prevent the creation of “a permanent underclass”, while Will O’Shea had to quit after encouraging the police to use ‘live rounds’ on BLM protesters.

Cummings assailed democratic institutions too. The government has commissioned a report into judicial review, to justify a likely future decision to place certain executive powers beyond judges’ reach. Meanwhile, “ouster” clauses included in the Internal Markets Bill enable ministers to violate the Human Rights Act.

Public service broadcasters are under threat, with Cummings’ government announcing a panel to assess “whether we need them” and a public consultation on decriminalising the non-payment of the TV licence fee.

These violations cast doubt on Cummings’ self-portrait as a brilliant maverick. Instead, it seems that this is simply arrogance and a belief that rules simply exist for other people. Nowhere was this more vividly displayed than his flagrant breach of the lockdown rules produced by his own government.

Cummings’ inexplicable 260-mile trip to Durham, while with COVID-19 symptoms no less, was only made more offensive to the public (many of whom sacrificed in profound ways to “stop the spread”) by his refusal to apologise and asinine attempts to deflect blame, alleging unfair media reporting while agreeing on all the story’s main features.

And then there was his populist rhetoric. Campaigning and governing, Cummings repeatedly stoked social divides, aligning himself with “the people” for convenient personal gain.

Cummings’ electoral narratives share a populist thread. From his earliest days on the ‘No Euro’ campaign (“keep the pound, keep control”) and ‘North East Says No’ (“Politicians talk, we pay”) to the ones we know and hate (“take back control” and “get Brexit done”), he sought to foster public outrage, without seeking to gain meaningful support for the ideology or pragmatics behind the side he was advocating.

Cummings said he prevented MPs from discussing the single market because “it had no purchase on public psychology, no one had a clue what they were talking about”, instead simply asserting “we will have a free trade deal, nothing to worry about”.

This pattern of his continued in Whitehall. From attempting to appoint right-wingers to govern independent institutions (Charles Moore for the BBC, and Paul Dacre for Ofcom), to banning ‘anti-capitalist’ teaching materials from classroom discussions, Cummings and Johnson inflamed cultural flash-points to distract from government failings.

Cummings’ most significant impact was in promoting a nastier, more aggressive mode of politics.  

This was largely necessary because of Cummings’ incompetence at government. Despite his fascination with “superforecasting”, he failed to predict countless government U-turns (from free school meals to the most recent lockdown) or prevent the bureaucratic incompetence he blogged about at tedious length.

Many of his plans to reshape Whitehall appear abandoned, such as cutting the size of the cabinet, relocating the House of Lords to York, and creating a mission-control centre in Downing Street. Johnson has ignored Cummings’ disapproval on other key issues, from HS2 to Huawei’s involvement in British 5G networks. 

That isn’t to say that Cummings achieved nothing. His Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) will be launched with a proposed £800 million budget, the Department for International Development (DfID) is to merge with the Foreign Office, and ‘Operation Moonshot’ is underway. Cummings’ most significant impact, though, was in promoting a nastier, more aggressive mode of politics.  

Cummings created a hostile environment in the civil service that would make Theresa May proud. At least six senior civil servants have left since Cummings has joined, while others were fired for minister’s mistakes (Jonathan Slater, chief civil servant at the education department, was sacked for the exams fiasco; Williamson remains).

Unprofessionalism, confrontation and bullying define Cummings’ career. After just eight months as Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s head of strategy, Cummings left, declaring IDS “incompetent”. During the ‘No Euro’ campaign, Colin Perry, who clashed with Cummings in a heated radio discussion, alleges that Cummings attempted to ‘push him down the steps’ immediately after.

Mary Bousted, then General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, worked with Cummings when he was a SPAD for Gove: “I would, yes [call Cummings a bully]. Shouting, losing his temper.” Cameron branded him a ‘career psychopath’, initially making Gove’s position as education secretary conditional on Cummings’ sacking; Nick Clegg apparently appointed an official to monitor him.

By some accounts, it was a rejection of this belligerent, “macho” approach to politics, provoking unnecessary opposition rather than mutually beneficial alliances, that ultimately instigated Cummings’ downfall.

Although the exact causes behind Johnson’s firing of Cummings are unknown, some reporters suggest that Downing Street’s leading women — Carrie Symonds (Johnson’s fiancee and ex-SPAD to Sajid Javid), Allegra Stratton (Johnson’s new press secretary and ex-advisor to Rishi Sunak), and Munira Mirza (Director of the No 10 Policy Unit) — collaborated to oust Cummings and resurrect a more consensual model of politics. 

Whether they will succeed is left to be seen, but I for one am happy to see that Cummings’ reckless compulsion to disrupt, divide and antagonise has been shown the door.

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