The ‘bombshell’ news this week that the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications was quitting caused a social media storm – at least in the Westminster bubble. Political journalists got excited about reporting on something other than Covid or Trump and started tweeting about all the other Downing Street team members about to walk out of the door. Brexit supremo David Frost and/or the ultimate Svengali, Dominic Cummings, were said to be packing their bags. Carrie was waving them off. It was all terribly dramatic.
At first this all seemed fanciful. After all, Frost and Cummings would never again be at the centre of things if they left No10. But then “friends of Dominic Cummings” told Laura Kuenssberg that he might leave by Christmas, and now he seems to have been pushed out already. There is some speculation about whether this is the result of a Johnsonian knifing or Govian manoeuvring; we shall see. But in any case, the events of this week have proved two things. First, this Government is so bad at communications that it can’t even manage the messaging around the departure of its own comms chief. Second, although everyone may have thought the Downing Street machine is the tail wagging the dog, when push comes to shove it is heartening to discover that Boris Johnson is actually in charge of his special advisers, not the other way round.
This is good news, because this simple fact seems to have been forgotten in recent months. Dominic Cummings in particular has been blown up by commentators, supporters and opponents alike as an omnipotent and omniscient figure pulling every string in Government. He has been widely reported to be following his own policy agenda, including a plan radically to reshape Whitehall. As a result, Ministers reportedly have done very little without his say so and it is claimed that Permanent Secretaries have been ready to fall on their swords if he even so much as looks in their directions. His admirers have stoked this hype and it may even be that he believed it himself – although given this administration’s track record that would be unfortunate, as Marina Hyde has memorably pointed out. Yet this latest episode is a timely corrective, showing that the politicians are the ones with the power; after all we voted for them, not for shadowy and unaccountable advisers.
In a sensible world advisers are there to support their Ministers (or the Prime Minister), coming up with ideas, helping make things happen, and explaining decisions to the world. They might even spin for their boss, or at least carry their bags. This, of course, would give them significant influence, not least as gatekeepers. But they should not be decision-makers. They should not have their own agenda – or certainly we should not know about it. Such things should always be reserved for the people we have elected.
So in that spirit it might be worth all government advisers retreating a little; they can start by reining in their public profiles. As a number of people have commented on Twitter this week, special advisers are like poisoners, either good at their jobs or well known, but not both. As politicians hopefully start to reassert control in the ‘post-Cain’ era and ‘post-Cummings’ world it is time for the unaccountable, unelected, and often unwanted puppet-masters to take a step back into the shadows.