Alex Massie

Boris and Cummings’ words are coming back to bite

Boris and Cummings' words are coming back to bite
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Unlike many of his critics, I do not particularly think of Dominic Cummings as a Keyser Soze figure, a devilish master of the black arts whose influence has assumed mythical dimensions. Nor do I even consider him a Rasputin-type advisor, corrupting the government and leading it astray for reasons, well, for reasons that are never quite or fully explained.

So I am not vexed, far less appalled, that the prime minister’s chief advisor sometimes sits in on the meetings of advisory committees. Indeed, it might be just as surprising – and just as surely fodder for his critics – if he, or one of his colleagues, did not attend some of these discussions.

But then I think Cummings an interesting man with some interesting things to say. And I think he is sometimes right, too, not least when he argues that 'Systems are fragile and vulnerable to nonlinear shocks: ‘big things come from small beginnings’ and problems cascade; ‘they come not single spies/But in battalions’. Prediction is extremely hard even for small timescales. Effective action and (even loose) control are very hard and most endeavours fail'.

That’s what he wrote on his blog in October 2014. I wonder how much he thinks has really changed six years later.

'The processes for selecting, educating, and training those at the apex of politics are between inadequate and disastrous' he wrote in the second of two fulminations against the fecklessness of British political leadership stretching back only 150 years. For, alas, 'almost nobody has the skills needed to cope with the complexity they face or even to understand the tools… that might help them'. The end result is that 'Westminster and Whitehall train people to fail, predictably and repeatedly'. 

Again, I wonder if he still thinks this. I imagine he does, not least because he has been in Downing Street for less than a year and that is nowhere near long enough, by Cummings’ own estimation, to change very much.

It may be more difficult to make choices and pick the right priorities if you think everything is broken and needing change all at once. Cummings is hardly the first outsider to chafe against the inadequacies of the Whitehall machine. The early years of New Labour were in large part spent battling the perceived inadequacies of the system. Alastair Campbell came from a different place than Cummings but he too once thought the civil service a problem just as much as it might have been a strength. I suspect Campbell – and, indeed, Tony Blair too – might once have agreed with Cummings that we 'face a profound mismatch between the scale of threats and the nature of our institutions'.

One such threat is with us now, isn’t it? And for all that the government has not necessarily been helped by the balance of the scientific advice it has received, it now seems plausible – I speak softly, deliberately – that there have been a number of serious miscalculations in terms of dealing with the coronavirus.

Knowing what we know now, the system was too slow to respond in February and then much too slow to move in March. I have every sympathy with politicians tasked with responding to a crisis of this sort and no interest in meeting even halfway those who have, with barely concealed relish, monitored the UK’s rise up the European death table.

Nevertheless, advisors advise and politicians decide. 'The science' is not a shield and politicians, in the end, are judged on what they say, what they do, and what they achieve. In which light, there is no avoiding the speech the Prime Minister gave in early February in which he declared:

'We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to but and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich, in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.'

Well, in a big picture sense, one may agree with the broad thrust of that but, ye gods, doesn’t it look painfully misjudged now? Prime ministers should always watch their tone and the painful combination of flippancy and grandiloquence on display here now seems somewhat misjudged. Alas, the Prime Minister cannot help himself. Only yesterday, he cheerfully posited a 'golden age for cycling' as citizens look to alternatives to public transport as and when some lockdown restrictions are eased. Perhaps it will be such an age, but, really, so what? This is trivial but it is also typical.

Glibness is no longer quite so charming. Focus matters and so does discipline and messaging. At present it is hard to avoid the thought this government is deficient in these qualities.

That reflects the manner in which only a handful of ministers can be trusted to appear on television and even these few have not shown an ability to communicate a simple message with any consistency. Hence the evident confusion over what may, or may not, come next; hence the utterly unhelpful briefings given to the press today, trailing the prime minister’s Sunday broadcast.

Dominic Cummings is fond of quoting Carl Sagan’s observation that the tension between the world’s complexity and our institutional ability to cope with system-wide fragility, contributes to 'a combustible mixture of ignorance and power'. According to Cummings, writing in 2014, 'If this mismatch persists, if we continue to pursue ‘traditional politics’ in the context of contemporary civilisation, it will sooner or later blow up in our faces'. You could, I think, argue there has been an explosion of sorts recently.

Consider this, too: 'The only widely understood model of activity in Westminster (and one which fits well psychologically with the desire for publicity) is a string of gimmicks aimed to manipulate the media (given the label ‘strategy’ to make it sound impressive)… Powerful people rush from meetings about the latest gimmick they are to announce, to meetings about the latest cockup for which they need to try to dodge the blame (possibly caused directly by a previously announced gimmick)… Ministers’ time is dominated by unfocused panic about the media environment – not focused urgency about the most important problems'. Do I hear you murmuring something about 100,000 tests a day? Why I think I do.

It is not that setting an ambitious target of that sort was foolish in itself. On the contrary, it may have helped focus attention. But the manner in which the stats have been juked to claim mission accomplished (for one day and then only if you do not confuse testing capacity with the number of tests carried out) has helped discredit the entire project. This is not an ideal moment for games-playing; yet here we are, playing games. Better to come up short but fail honestly and with candour than 'succeed' fraudulently and in ways that undermine your seriousness of purpose. Yet, again, here we are and what’s true of testing could just as easily be said about PPE provision and care homes and so much else. Again, stop messing around; stop chiselling; stop trying to be too clever by half.

But then, in Cummings’ own words, 'The effective planning horizon of No10 is ten days at best (often less than 72 hours)'. Again, it would be interesting to know if he still thinks this the case. Taking his cue from Eliot, Cummings decried 'the Hollow Men' typical of Britain’s governing class during the Cameron years. Perhaps he was right to do so but if so it hardly seems possible, let alone plausible, they have been replaced by more substantial figures now.

The Prime Minister’s absence from the fray for so many weeks – like, perhaps, Cummings’ own period of illness and convalescence – has plainly hindered progress. Grip and focus – qualities highly prized by Cummings – have not been over-evident. Instead there has been too much blather about handling the crisis well, too much talk of sunnier times ahead, too much much self-regard all round.

And the tone matters. As a question of policy there has been little real divergence between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. To that end, they stand or fall together. But the manner in which messages have been communicated has differed and while it is not Boris Johnson’s fault he is not as coherent or confident a communicator as Nicola Sturgeon the sense persists that, overall, his tone has not quite matched the gravity of the occasion.

When it really counts, however, the buck stops in Downing Street and nowhere else. Central government leads and few things are truly simple. I don’t for a moment pretend any of this is easy and diagnosis is much more easily found than a cure. In that sense, the Dominic Cummings of 2014 was perhaps a more persuasive figure writing from the outside than is the Dominic Cummings of 2020 tasked with implementation in place of mere diagnosis.

Again, let us return to 2014: 'There is a widespread befuddled defeatism that nothing much in Westminster can really change and most people inside the Whitehall system think major change is impossible even if it were necessary. This is wrong. Change is possible. We do not have to live with the permanent omnishambles that we have become accustomed to.' If so, if true, this would seem a useful moment to be making that change happen.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator.

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