Since his entry into the highest echelons of government as the prime minister’s Machiavel, Dominic Cummings has generated countless column inches. The articles are sometimes provoked by his sheer – if somewhat cultivated – weirdness and inflated sense of his own intellectual acuity; others are written by horrified liberals trembling at an electoral savant and genius sloganeer now set on remaking the state. But Cummings is chiefly interesting because Boris Johnson is frustratingly amorphous: we reach for the prolix ‘career psychopath’ (as David Cameron described him) to flesh out the prime minister’s still empty programme for government. Flashes of optimism over the past week that Cummings’s influence was waning – having lost out in arguments over HS2 and Huawei – now seem premature. Yesterday’s reshuffle has his bootprints all over it.
Two departing cabinet ministers agree. Both Sajid Javid and Geoffrey Cox finger Cummings in their resignation letters: Javid highlights the need for advisers ‘with character and integrity you would wish to be associated with’; Cox, with lawyerly obliquity, reminds the prime minister that he once eulogised him as a man who would ensure Brexit ‘was led by politicians not officials’.
Javid’s ouster marks the culmination of a move begun before the election, when Cummings had his media adviser, Sonia Khan, marched out of Downing Street by a machinegun-toting policeman. Now all the chancellor’s advisers will be appointed by Number 10, effectively ending the relative autonomy of the office, draining it of much of its power, and bringing economic policy firmly within the purview of the prime minister. Many commentators were quick to praise Javid’s refusal of an intolerable imposition, but his brief tenure at the Exchequer was undistinguished: diffident about the newfound Conservative enthusiasm for economic intervention – he says he rereads Ayn Rand’s turgid paean to unfettered capitalism, The Fountainhead, annually – his economic strategy was muddled and prevaricating. His successor, Rishi Sunak, was a loyal Johnsonian mouthpiece throughout the election, with any tendency to independent thought carefully repressed; with a budget due in under a month, he will perhaps be glad of suggestions from Dom.
Cummings’s triumph over Javid illuminates the government’s likely trajectory. Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’ This entrenched conservatism has occasionally been praised – Keynes thought it a bulwark against madcap governmental wickedness – but has more often frustrated politicians of both left and right intent on reshaping the economy. Bringing its political wing under his influence suggests Cummings is eager to break the Treasury’s taboo, and serious about realising the Conservatives’ so far vague spending pledges, to firm up their potentially volatile electoral coalition. If he is serious about Whitehall reform, he also underestimates its complexity and intractability. The Treasury’s inertia is not caused by a few indolent spads at the top, easily replaced.
Sunak will have some latitude: to lose another chancellor would be a political headache. But it helps that the policy idea he has most championed – ‘free ports’, special economic areas exempt from taxes and tariffs – is in tune with his new boss. As these zones would be intolerable to the EU, his appointment confirms the direction of Brexit policy towards minimal alignment, and a shift – however tentative – away from trade orthodoxy. How far this may lead to a hybrid protectionism, mingled with domestic investment and even strategic state aid, is unclear: the Tory Party’s new voters want to see it flash the cash, and soon, but its permanent base distrusts exotic departures from Thatcherite rationale, and still hungers for the tax cuts Johnson promised in his leadership campaign last summer. The forthcoming local government funding settlement, which analysis from the Local Government Association suggests may drain £320 million from the ‘red wall’ to the South-East, will increase the tension. For an opposition that was paying attention, it would be an opportunity to prise the Tory coalition apart before it sticks.
Had Johnson or Cummings simply wanted rid of Javid, it would have been possible to sack him. Perhaps they thought he might accept the neutering of his team to save his job. But prompting his resignation provides a helpful lesson to other ministers: Number 10 expects full subordination to its agenda, and will not be shy about further centralising power in an already centralised state. There is an odd paradox here: since the election, much of the Tory policy establishment has spoken of ‘levelling up’ left-behind regions in England, but proposes to do so by further concentrating power not only in Whitehall but in Downing Street. This is not insurmountable: it may be that strategic investment and redistribution can be conducted from an office in Westminster, and that largesse is enough. But questions could come up about where decisions are being taken, and by whom; Cummings may find his invective against the London elite spinning back against him.
The instinct for centralisation is not limited to removing obstacles and checks within the cabinet: the appointments of Oliver Dowden as culture secretary and Suella Braverman as attorney general signal Johnson’s intention to carry on the attacks against the BBC and the judicial apparatus. Dowden – who has never shown a discernible interest in culture or media – is a loyal Johnsonite, and will dutifully ratchet up the assault on the Corporation’s licence fee. A comparison with another Tory prime minister hostile to the BBC is instructive: many of Thatcher’s worst ideas on broadcasting were deflected by Douglas Hurd. No such tactful resistance is likely from Johnson’s new appointee.
It is Braverman, however, who best embodies the tilt of Johnson’s new Tories. She came to prominence in March 2019 after declaring to a Tory meeting that the party was ‘at war with Cultural Marxism’, the favoured antisemitic conspiracy theory of the alt-right; instead of apologising, she mocked people for being offended. In an article two weeks ago – an obvious audition for the cabinet – she levelled her ire at the Human Rights Act and declared the need to ‘take back control, not just from the EU, but from the judiciary.’ Then she popped up a few days ago in the Commons to castigate David Lammy for ‘shrill virtue-signalling’ over Windrush. Her elevation is a sign of Downing Street’s enthusiasm for the culture wars.
Braverman will not share her predecessor’s apparent reluctance to curtail the scope of judicial review and the capacity of the Supreme Court to restrain the government. She will doubtless find legal accommodation for Priti Patel’s threatened ‘review’ of human rights law. Whether so fervent a supporter of Johnson will be able – as the attorney general should – to give the government advice it does not want to hear is an open question. Like Dowden and Sunak, Braverman has only been an MP since 2015: with little parliamentary or ministerial experience, and dependent on Johnson’s patronage, they are hard to see as more than Downing Street appendages.
There are other signs to be read in the entrails of the reshuffle: Alok Sharma’s enthusiasm for airport expansion suggests his tenure as business secretary will not be a shining time for climate policy; George Eustice is the first former Ukip candidate to make it into a Tory cabinet. But it’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.