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Philip Collins: Dominic Cummings vs. Whitehall

Friday 19 March 2021

A former Number 10 speechwriter analyses Cummings’s appearance before the Science and Technology Select Committee, and what it says about the man himself


Greg Clark MP
The Science and Technology Committee undertook an inquiry into this new funding agency and we issued a report on 12 February. The bill to bring into existence what will be known as Aria, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – backed by £800 million of taxpayers money – was published two weeks ago and is about to begin its scrutiny in both houses of parliament.

The prime minister’s previous chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is, through his writings, widely thought to be the originator of the Arpa (Advanced Research Projects Agency) model as a proposal for the UK… Now he’s no longer working for the government, he’s free to speak… Perhaps I can start with a question to Mr. Cummings: what is the problem to which Aria is the solution?

Dominic Cummings
So I think there’s a few overall problems. First of all, almost all science funders globally operate in the same way. They have pretty much the same metrics like papers, they have pretty much the same kind of horrific bureaucracy… 

Secondly, you have a few examples historically of things that work on completely different principles, and are super, super productive. But these sort of entities, whether it’s like the Manhattan Project, like the old LMB, like Arpa in the 60s, Bletchley – these sort of things, they tend to be destroyed by bureaucracies pretty quickly over time and the people who run them tend to be driven away… And that essentially means, I guess in very simple terms, it means extreme freedom.

That’s one of the great lessons of the things that have been most successful historically, that’s what produced the internet and the personal computing revolution. So you need to strip out all the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy around procurement, state aid, human resources, civil service pay scales… all of these sorts of things, and huge centre processes for the Treasury as well. Things like the Treasury business case process, which is horrific and causes huge delays in science and technology, there’s logic for it elsewhere in the system, but as applied to science and technology, it’s very damaging.

This is the Cummings world view in a well-turned paragraph. This is classic Dom. The key to understanding his thinking is that he is anything but a conservative. The stress on freedom might align him as a liberal of a kind but Mr Cummings is better thought of as an iconoclast. The testimony that follows has him on his best behaviour – there are fewer rhetorical flourishes than he usually offers – but there are still characteristic flashes. Mr Cummings likes knocking things over. He is at his most fluent when he has a fool or a knave in his sights. That is why he was an effective campaigner for Brexit but addresses the committee from outside government. The very excess of procedure that he laments in this passage meant that he was himself ill-suited for the slow grind of government. 

This opening brings together two of his three big ideas – Brexit being the first – and displays Mr Cummings’s fear that one threatens the other. Not since Tony Benn ran the Ministry for Technology as part of Harold Wilson’s attempt to own the future has a senior political person spoken with such relish and, it has to be said, amateur expertise, about science. This is a genuine enthusiasm and there is something boyish and winning in Mr Cummings’s delivery. He also has a serious point; the importance of funding scientific discovery properly would unite him with unlikely allies such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. 

But even if science funding can be sorted out, Mr Cummings’s real anxiety is that the delivery will be botched. Time and again in the committee proceedings he returns to the theme he opens with here, which is that bureaucracy is the enemy of invention and all the more so in a discipline such as science in which practitioners need to work unwatched by the regulators and the state. Just observe the language. Bureaucracy is not just an impediment. It is “horrific” and “very, very damaging”. It’s like a virus that targets creativity and kills it off.

Greg Clark MP
I think it’s evident most people accept that the proposal to have a UK Arpa – now Aria – was yours. Was it something that you proposed to the prime minister, was it part of a deal that you did with the prime minister to join him?

Dominic Cummings
I wouldn’t say it’s my idea. I mean, all I’m doing is suggesting what a lot of the best scientists and technology people in the world have been suggesting for decades actually – that Britain should learn from some of these examples including the 60s Arpa, so I wouldn’t in any way… this is not my idea. 

Essentially what happened in terms of what you’re talking about is the prime minister came to speak to me, the Sunday before he became prime minister, and said: would I come into Downing Street to try and help sort out the huge Brexit nightmare? I said yes, if, first of all, you’re deadly serious about actually getting Brexit done and avoiding a second referendum; secondly, double the science budget; third, create some Arpa-like entity; and fourth, support me in trying to change how Whitehall works and how the cabinet office works because it’s a disaster zone. And he said “deal”.

When Tony Blair used to be accused of “sofa government”, the sofas in question were at least in Downing Street. Here Mr Cummings gives an insight into how power is so erratically and randomly distributed in Britain. The prime minister sits on the sofa in Mr Cummings’s house and pledges a vast increase in science funding and a revolution in the Cabinet Office, just like that. All to help get Brexit done. 

This shows how weak the prime minister was – spending public money on the hoof. But there is an irony that Mr Cummings almost spots as he speaks. Brexit was so all-consuming that it prevented any of these plans making rapid progress. Then Covid intervened and the science plans fell back further. Yet, at the end, Mr Cummings returns to his recurring motif: Whitehall cannot do this. 

The revolution in the Cabinet Office he wanted as a condition of the deal with Mr Johnson may be necessary before any new institutions can be created. And doing any of this while trying to untangle the mess of Brexit was impossible. 

Mr Cummings’s list of conditions cancelled one another out. This is a pithy account, in his four conditions, of why politics is always about the ordering of priorities. Mr Cummings here is speaking a different language. His is the idiom of the activist, the science enthusiast and the iconoclast. These character traits are admirable but they rarely last in political life and here, without quite spelling out the connection, Mr Cummings explains his own failure.

Graham Stringer MP
Are you pleased with the detail in the bill that will set up this organisation? Because when I read it, it looked as though the bureaucrats who you say destroy initiative and innovation in the science world had got their grubby mitts on it. Because at any time the government can take control of the organisation – if you look at schedule one in the bill, and there are all sorts of other controls in section two of the bill. Are you pleased with it or disappointed with it?

Dominic Cummings
There are too many restrictions. Certainly in my model of it, you wouldn’t have ministers anywhere near making decisions about how it spends money. I think that would be a disaster. In my model, it would be extremely simple. You would find a director, you’d have probably a maximum of four trustees, so that they are actually real trustees and they’d have real control, not one of these normal government things with like 20 people on board so that no one’s actually exercising serious responsibility for it.  And you would cut it loose from the rest of the system. So no, I’m not confident about how it will work out.

It’s also crucial to remember that the basic principle of extreme freedom is completely hostile… It’s completely the opposite of how all normal science funding works, and how all normal Whitehall works

There would be an air of getting the excuse in early here, were it not for the fact that Mr Cummings is probably right. The Aria initiative probably will fail and the reason probably will be that the state bureaucracy is too slow and cumbersome to give it licence to work well. This is the paradox of the Cummings rhetorical style. He is agonistic by nature but the fights he starts do not necessarily do him any favours. 

Mr Cummings’s notices are always about who he has fallen out with. That reputation tends to go before and obscure an important fact which is that he is often substantively right. He is right about the importance of science funding, right about the creative freedom that is needed and right about the freezing effects of bureaucracy. In this session he is calm and reasonable and, despite the rather manic repetition of the case with which he ends this passage, persuasive. Indeed, stripped of rhetorical effect, the case he is making is an old one. 

More than half a century ago, the Wilson government made the link between science policy and the decrepit state. Wilson asked John Fulton to look into the operation of the civil service and Fulton’s report described an institution that was slow, insular and self-regarding. Read now, the Fulton report sounds like the testimony of Dominic Cummings before a select committee. 

There is no better witness to the slowness of change in Whitehall than the fact that Fulton’s report, written in 1968, reads as if it were written yesterday, with a preface by Dominic Cummings and an assenting contribution from Graham Stringer.

Dawn Butler MP
So obviously these are the people that you know, and you talked about having scientists on the edge, you know, the wild cards and the misfits, the people that you really like. This is going to be your legacy… how will you stay involved? 

Dominic Cummings
Oh, I mean I won’t be involved. I’m not seeking to be involved. I wouldn’t want to be involved, I shouldn’t be involved. 

Dawn Butler MP
Why shouldn’t you be involved?

Dominic Cummings
Well, the only way in which I could add any value to it would be if you picked the wrong people in the first place. If you pick the right people, then what could I possibly contribute to it? 

Dawn Butler MP
Great, so if you were offered a position, you wouldn’t take it?

Dominic Cummings
No, I know that there are some rumours around about that sort of thing, and rumours that Number 10 has asked me to do it or whatever… I don’t know if they are thinking about that. But if it was suggested I would certainly say no.

One of the pleasures of having testimony at select committees from people who are not politicians, or not very adept at the art, is that they occasionally answer a question directly. Dawn Butler is expecting circumlocution. Instead, she gets a story. 

Cummings is not interested in being involved in the institution he helped to create. This shows what an unusual character he is in Whitehall. When he protests not to care about his own advancement all that much, it sounds self-serving and nobody believes it. It sounds like rhetorical confection but it mostly isn’t. He cares about science funding and he hates political process. 

There should be a clue in his words here, as he says both these things repeatedly – it is worth taking them at face value. The hardest thing to accept is that he might mean what he says and, in this question and the next, the logic of political practice collides with the logic of a man who is a self-styled part-campaigner, part-scientist manque, part-scourge of the establishment.

Dawn Butler MP
So you said in January this was your main thing that you worked on – the science, Aria. Is that the reason why you were given the £45,000 pay rise?

Dominic Cummings
No, the media reports about me getting a pay rise after Covid are wrong. It is true that I interfered with the pay system, regarding my own pay, but that was in summer 2019.

When I arrived I was put on the normal pay band for my position of 140-something-thousand. I said that I didn’t want that and I only wanted to be paid the same as I was paid when I was at Vote Leave. I figured that I should be paid the same for trying to sort out the Brexit mess as I’d been paid for doing Vote Leave, so I asked for a pay cut, which is what happened in summer 2019. 

For some reason, this has appeared in the media as if I got a pay rise after Covid. But that didn’t happen. When we were all rehired the day after the election, then I moved back onto the normal pay grade for my position.

This question allows Cummings to rehearse the other of his major themes, which is the dishonesty and lack of integrity of the print media. It was notable how much of his famous press conference in the Downing Street rose garden was devoted to his complaints about newspaper coverage. An event which was ostensibly called for him to explain his trip to Barnard Castle quickly descended into a list of items from the story that were untrue. 

It should be said again that the claims Mr Cummings complained about were indeed untrue. The trouble for him was that the central claim was true. But he is an exacting critic, severe in his call for truth. There is some relish in this straight denial that he received a pay increase. The suggestion that he did has been part of the oppositional rhetoric of the Labour party in recent weeks so it is an important falsehood, if that is what it is.

Greg Clark MP
What about in Number 10? You said doubling the science budget was part of the deal that you did with the prime minister when you came in. You’re no longer there. Is there enough support for this in Number 10 to help… the Treasury pursue the de-bureaucratisation you described?

Dominic Cummings
I don’t know… I hope that as the country emerges from the current lockdown, and as there is… a very, very hard look by this building into what went wrong, and why… It’s not coincidental that the vaccine programme worked the way that it did. It’s not coincidental that to do that we had to take it out of the Department of Health. We had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister and say: strip away all the normal nonsense that we can see is holding back funding in therapeutics… in spring 2020, you had a situation where the Department for Health was just a smoking ruin, in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that… 

We also had the EU proposal, which looked absolutely guaranteed to fail, a debacle, and therefore Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me and some others said: obviously we should take this out the Department for Health, obviously we should create a separate task force, and obviously we have to empower that task force directly with the authority of the prime minister.

Cummings clearly enjoys turning a phrase until it catches the light and he enjoys a hefty exaggeration. The Department for Health was not, as he might have said it, struggling with the exceptional and once-in-a-century circumstances of responding to a global pandemic. It has to be “a smoking ruin”. 

The department’s procedures for buying protective equipment would, of course, be undeveloped in usual times. It makes perfect sense to take the responsibility out of the department and centralise it in a specialist unit overseen by the prime minister. This has both a political and a practical consequence. It shows the centre has a grip, and it does in fact help to impose a grip. 

It is intriguing that Mr Cummings nods to the fact that the government handled the early stage of the pandemic poorly. That remark about what went wrong in 2020 will come back if and when he is called before a future inquiry into what went wrong. But, in the end, he cannot resist turning the account into another attack on the civil service. 

The centralisation of the British state, so often a weakness, has been a great strength during the vaccination programme. This, rather than the “smoking ruin” of the Department for Health, is the substantive point. Mr Cummings knows this really but he cannot help himself. He is a man who likes a fight and even when he is essentially right he has a way of making you assume he must be wrong. The style overwhelms the substance, and not to his advantage. 

If only he were less interesting he might find that, though his words would not be analysed for public consumption, he might still be in a position to force even more funds for science out of a compliant prime minister.