Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street with big plans, and the stated intention to only stay long enough to get them rolling. So, one year later, what has Boris Johnson’s chief adviser and policy touchstone actually achieved?
Reforming the civil service
Perhaps Cummings most resonant quote from No 10 – albeit delivered at second hand – was the idea of a “hard rain” landing on complacent civil servants. Revolutionising a hugely complex organisation of more than 400,000 people was never going to be simple, especially within a year of a pandemic. The main changes have been at the top, with a series of permanent secretaries – the lead official in a department – being ousted, along with Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.
Verdict: not achieved.
Centralising authority in Downing Street
Many of the numerous Conservative MPs who cheered the news of Cummings’ departure in the hope it will result in a more open No 10 would certainly agree this has happened. Much of the tighter grip has been based on centralising advisers, all of whom had to report to Cummings, an innovation which led to Sajid Javid resignation as chancellor. Given this revamped operation has presided over a series of mishaps and U-turns, whether it can be deemed a success, or will last, is another matter.
Verdict: yes, but at a cost – and could be reversed by a successor.
A data-led government
Another obsession of Cummings, who – while a history graduate – is known for lamenting the grip of dilettante generalists on government. In an unusual recruitment drive, Cummings used his personal blog in January to appeal for data scientists and other “assorted weirdos” to sign up. Government data is yet another area brought into No 10 under Cummings, and in July it advertised for a data expert to set up a largely autonomous data “skunkworks”.
Verdict: some change achieved.
As one of several Vote Leave veterans inside No 10, Cummings had arguably less direct impact here than in other areas, instead being more part of a consensus. It is fair to say that his presence helped keep Johnson’s feet to the fire in terms of threatening Brussels over a UK walkout without concessions on a trade deal from the EU, even if the PM’s allies argue this would have happened anyway. Could Cummings’ departure see Johnson again achieve a deal by suddenly giving ground but nonetheless claiming a great victory? Perhaps – but then again, this might have happened anyway.
Verdict: he has played a role in the UK’s tough Brexit stance
Allies of Cummings say that the main reason he is staying at No 10 until Christmas is to oversee the rollout of mass coronavirus testing, based around innovative and near-instant tests. The most ambitious iteration of this would see millions of daily tests, meaning that even before the mass rollout of a vaccine, people could be certified Covid-free before going to work, or mass events such as at sports stadiums. A first try out, in Salford, was some way from being a success, but ministers are more bullish about the new version, kicking off in Liverpool.
Verdict: needs work – and could be overtaken by a vaccine.
While successive government have talked up the need to liberate planning processes so more homes can be built, they have generally done little. Cummings’ experience illustrates why. A planned change to the system, based on an algorithm to allocate new homes to certain areas, has prompted open revolt among many Tory MPs, who argue the scheme is overly blunt and will dump large numbers of badly-built homes in the wrong places. Nimbyism is ubiquitous in planning matters, but the Cummings proposal has prompted genuine anger, and would very possibly struggle to get through parliament.
Verdict: unlikely to happen, as it stands.