From the start, Dominic Cummings courted the image of the power behind the throne. When Boris Johnson walked into 10 Downing Street for the first time as UK prime minister, his top adviser positioned himself in a corner but in shot of the news cameras. His grey T-shirt amid the civil servants’ dark suits conveyed his singular message: I am not part of the establishment and I am here to shake it up. When he left Downing Street on Friday, apparently on Mr Johnson’s orders, he chose to do so from the front door, not the back gate, carrying a cardboard box — the universal visual shorthand for “you’re fired”.
Why so much attention? He was, after all, only an adviser. But in British government these figures — appointed far more informally than the civil servants whose band they nominally join — have a mystique, a public profile and often a degree of real power that means their rise and fall matters to a degree that can mystify other countries.
Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell; Jeremy Corbyn had Seamus Milne; and, last year Mr Johnson brought in Mr Cummings, who had been the architect of the Vote Leave campaign before the prime minister’s conversion to that cause. All these advisers have traded in the same currency: a mixture of intellect and menace that echoes the old theatrical trope of the servant cleverer than the master.
The British system also creates a dependency on special advisers. Ministers — and that includes the prime minister — have far less of the specialised and political support that their counterparts in other countries enjoy. The “cabinet” system of France or Brussels, for instance, gives ministers or commissioners specialist advisers who are supportive of their objectives, experienced in how to achieve them and expert in the technical detail.
It is a strength of the British system that ministers can draw on an impartial civil service to pursue their goals. But many feel they also need at least some people who sympathise with those political goals and support what they are trying to do with a more personal commitment. Special advisers (or “spads”) fill that role.
The position has been controversial, though, because of the informality that pervades British constitutional arrangements. There has been little transparency over how spads are appointed, and less about how their pay is set. Their responsibilities have been unclear; so has their hierarchy. Their legal status is as civil servants on a short term contract and they are bound by the civil service code, but it will be interesting to see whether Mr Cummings holds by its discretion or fires out one of his blogs.
In Mr Cummings’s case, the influence behind the theatrics was real. One of his first moves was to drive an overhaul of the civil service, and it is partly because of him that this unloved cause has remained a government priority during a global pandemic. He was also one of the advocates for “levelling up” the UK, helping northern constituencies where the Conservatives won seats.
His recognisability was his undoing, though. During this spring’s national lockdown he was spotted visiting the north-east of England, seemingly in breach of lockdown rules. Despite national outrage and derision, Mr Johnson refused to sack him.
The explosion in Downing Street this week, which also claimed another top adviser and could yet take down more, owes as much to the fluidity of the spad role as to Mr Cummings’s rebarbative style. Advisers have power, but no one knows how much until they test it. When the struggle eventually came, Mr Cummings lost. The prime minister chose to remind him, as he did not in the summer, that for all the influence an adviser has in British government, at the end of the day he is just an adviser.
The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank