Cummings cunning Whitehall revolution

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.

How a Whitehall mandarin wanted to add insult to injury for redundant steel apprentices

Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, wanted to stop paying apprentices when they were sacked

Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, wanted to stop paying apprentices when they were sacked


The appalling destruction of Britain’s steel industry with the loss of  4000 jobs  -a fifth of the workforce in just one month- has been bad enough.

Ministers have accepted that there appears to be little they can do against the Chinese dumping of steel – and that the steel industry will have to slim down to meet the drop in world wide demand. The trouble is that this decision will mean that it will be Britain that will be getting rid of its industry while governments in the rest of the world decided to keep their steelworks.

But if that was not appalling enough what has happened to a new generation of apprentice steel workers – hoping for a new career in manufacturing. They have been thrown on the scrapheap with other workers -just like the mineworkers.

So it is extraordinary as I reported in Tribune last week that Martin Donnelly, the permanent secretary at the department for business,innovation and skills, proposed that apprentices  should sacked on the spot and unlike other workers receive no more pay or even redundancy.

In a letter to his political boss, Sajid Javid,the business secretary, Mr Donnelly said the cost – some £1.7m of taxpayer’s money – was not justified in Redcar where the steel works closed.

Quoting Treasury rules he wrote: “The required appraisal process concludes that this would not offer value for money even after taking into account the very real economic challenges facing apprentices in the Tees Valley at this time.

“It is the case that apprenticeship training offers a value for money investment… I am also concerned that spending at this level would be repercussive, and might create an unhelpful precedent.”

In this case Sajid overruled him saying “I have to weigh that assessment against the broader objectives of government; including our commitments to localism, and our aim to build confidence in apprenticeships.

“Furthermore, the apprentices of Teesside face a very extreme situation and one which, in my judgement, requires an exceptional and urgent public sector response that is equivalent to the scale of the challenge.”

This struck me as a very mean view for a mandarin to take  – and obviously he was worried it would create similar requests in Scunthorpe, the Midlands and Scotland where other jobs have now been lost.

But it is certainly harsh just to cut off money to apprentices – and the minister was right to overrule him.