Next month Boris Johnson is expected to have a Cabinet reshuffle. This will be his chance to mould his government’s image for the rest of the Parliament.
If he takes the advice of his chief of staff Dominic Cummings it will be another opportunity to throw a disruptive spanner in the works.
For Cummings is already on record as saying he wants big changes.
At an event hosted by the think tank IPPR in 2014, he was reported as saying: “The whole Cabinet Office structure and No. 10 structure is completely broken, [as] anyone who has to deal with it knows.”
Cabinet size “a complete farce”
The system had to change, he said, and the Treasury’s broken, while having a Cabinet of 30 people was a “complete farce” and should be whittled down to just six or seven key ministers.
Whether Johnson goes as far as this will be a matter for him but I would not be surprised to see some radical changes. And what changes he makes to the Cabinet will affect Whitehall. Since Parliamentary scrutiny through select committees is based on Whitehall departments , it would also affect the accountability of government.
As I wrote last week on Byline Times, the Whitehall revolution has already started. You can read the article here.
It began with the first Cabinet reshuffle after the general election when the former Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned rather than take Cummings diktat that he should lose all his independent advisers.
Marched out by armed police
That has already come back to bite him. As The Guardian reported one of his advisers, Sonia Khan, who was marched out of the Treasury by armed police, is taking the case to a tribunal as a sex discrimination case. Cummings dismissed her by phone for allegedly lying about talking to one of Philip Hammond’s ( remember him! he was the chancellor under Theresa May) advisers.
A judge ruled out an attempt by government lawyers to have Cummings name removed from the case – meaning he will have to defend himself publicly. There is a five day hearing put down for December. I would not be surprised if the Cabinet Office tries to offer her large sums of our taxpayer’s money to have it settled out of court to avoid embarrassment to the PM and Cummings.
Parallel to the denuding of independent advisers to the Treasury, Cummings has strengthened his position by appointing Vote Leave campaigner Alex Hickman as the PM’s adviser on business and getting Ben Warner, who worked with him at Vote Leave, as a special adviser in Number Ten. His brother Marc, has a controlling influence in Faculty, a high tech start up, which has already been awarded million pound contracts by the NHS to deal with Covid-19 without competitive tendering.
new permanent secretary
But Cummings wants to go much further in Whitehall. On 1 May, a US recruitment agency won a contract from the Government to headhunt a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – a ministry that will play a crucial role in building up Britain post-Brexit. The job is not being advertised internally as is the normal practice.
The New York based firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, is principally a high tech recruiter and its philosophy is pretty much in line with the Cummings credo. Its website is here. The firm believes that all organisations should be run like high tech companies not as bureaucracies.
“The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted,” it states.
Cummings is a passionately in favour of the high tech companies – who often employ highly skilled computer savvy people on short term contracts and would like to see Whitehall remodelled along these lines.
In 2018, Cummings expanded his attack on Whitehall in a paper which predicted: “There will be a chance for a small group to face reality and change the political landscape with new priorities and a new approach to the whole problem of high-performance government.”
Permanent secretaries are key figures in Whitehall – the 40 or so are the people who glue together the system – providing leadership and setting the tone of their department. They also can hold ministers to account over unauthorised spending.
The new permanent secretary will start in September well in time to work on business post Brexit. He will act, in my view, as a Trojan horse, to change Whitehall for good if Cummings has his way.