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Dominic Cummings wearing a shirt and tie and baseball cap, touch his face and looking wide eyed.
EPA/Andy Rain

Dominic Cummings has exposed a hole at the heart of the British government – and a glaring problem with the way we choose prime ministers

The COVID inquiry is possibly the most sophisticated and wide-ranging blame game that has ever played out in British politics. That said, the great benefit of public inquiries, as opposed to parliamentary scrutiny, is that their breadth allows for an exploration of issues in a way that promotes “cool thinking” (balanced, reflective, evidence-based) over “hot rhetoric” (aggressive, adversarial, emotive).

Although hotly awaited, Dominic Cummings’s appearance before the inquiry was a fairly cool affair. Gone was the “mad man in the wings” who had caused controversy and chaos in Whitehall as chief adviser to former prime minister Boris Johnson. The edgy and unrepentant dissident who sat in the garden of No.10 and sought to justify his lockdown-breaking drive to Barnard Castle replaced now by a far calmer character.

There were, of course, the juicy soundbites about poor planning (the Cabinet Office described as a “dumpster fire”) and even poorer leadership (Johnson apparently being “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life”). The scale of dysfunctionality was captured in the use of a new language of disarray and disorder. Johnson, for example, was known as “trolley” due to his tendency to change direction. Shifts in policy were the result of “poppins” (moments when officials would “pop in” to see Boris Johnson to drip-feed thoughts of doubt into his mind).

A bunch of trolleys and poppins.

Deep story

None of this insight was new, of course. The fact that the pandemic became a “Kafkaesque nightmare”, as Cummings put it, was no revelation to those who had been following this sorry saga. But a deeper story did emerge in the course of Cummings’s evidence.

In sociological research the notion of a “deep story” – as sociologist Arlie Hochschild has demonstrated with such insight – focuses on how people make sense of the world. Deep stories don’t need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true to those who tell them. They are the stories people tell themselves to capture and manage pressures and disappointments, fears and anxieties.

In the COVID context, what’s most significant is the way in which a trail of WhatsApps and other social media messages have laid bare the “deep story” of how officials and advisers felt about their political masters. Expletive-laden messages between senior officials, the government described as a “terrible, tragic joke” and even the admission by the country’s most senior civil servant that he was “not sure I can cope”.

What these inquiry sessions with central political figures have really revealed was the frailty of human nature when expected to govern under pressure – which in itself leads to a focus on expertise.

The deeper issue, if not the story, emerging out of Cummings’s evidence was the existence of a governing system that was almost completely devoid of expertise. Plans did not exist. Systems were not connected. Data was not collected. Admissions of “dysfunctionality” little more than a veil for an incredibly amateurish system staffed by generalists who were committed to “muddling through” when systemic responses were needed.

Where expertise was available in the form of its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the government lacked the capacity to understand or interrogate the advice it was given.

The bigger picture is provided in former government minister Rory Stewart’s book Politics on the Edge, which charts in great detail how those with expertise and specialist knowledge within Whitehall are sidelined in terms of promotion and policy input. Journalist Ian Dunt makes a similar argument in his critique of both ministers and the civil service – generalists jettisoned into a system based on non-stop churn.

Shallow man

And yet there is a dimension of this story that is not at all deep. Indeed, its shallowness is almost shocking. The core and undeniable concern that Cummings’s evidence reinforced relates to the issue of leadership.

The admission by Lee Cain, the former director of communications in No.10 under Johnson, that COVID “was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset” demands deconstruction.

How did Johnson become prime minister, and what were the skills or attributes that he brought to the role?

This is not a partisan question. It is a proposal for sober reflection on how we give people power.

Boris Johnson scratching his head.
Wrong skillset: Boris Johnson. EPA

Arguably the most galling element of the evidence that the public inquiry is amassing about Johnson’s lack of leadership skills is that anyone who had done even the smallest amount of credible research on his personal and professional life up to July 2019 could only have concluded that he was totally unfit for office.

This is not a partisan point either. It is underscored by a vast seam of research and scholarship. Anyone who doubts this point might simply take a dip into Tom Bower’s biography which titles Johnson as The Gambler. Andrew Gimson’s account of his “rise and fall” provides another weighty account of chaos and disaster. Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition outlines a life of entitlement and absurdity.

The deepest question unearthed by Cummings’s evidence is really one about how we select and support our political leaders. In Johnson’s case it’s worth remembering that he was elected and effectively anointed prime minister by Conservative party members, who constitute less than 1% of the electorate in the United Kingdom (and a skewed and unrepresentative slice of the public at that).

We know from May’s law of curvilinearity that party activists tend to be more extreme in their views than the general public, and are likely to prize certain “qualities” (such as celebrity status, charisma and charm) over “basic skills” (organisational expertise or project management experience).

Celebrity, charisma and charm might be appropriate qualities for tea parties and fundraising dinners but they’re not much good for leading integrated pandemic response strategies.

That’s the deep and simple story.

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