There’s a metaphor borrowed from the corporate world in circulation at Westminster to describe the power structure of this government. Boris Johnson is the chairman and Michael Gove is the chief executive. This is more flattering to Mr Gove than it is to Mr Johnson, for it implies that the prime minister is merely the performative face of the regime while the levers of power are operated by his old frenemy from the Cabinet Office. As for Dominic Cummings, Number 10’s visually challenged genius-in-residence probably regards himself as the chief innovation officer. I suspect that both he and Mr Gove do indeed think of Mr Johnson as the frontman for what is ultimately their project.
I focus on this trio because that is where so much power is hoarded. Boris Johnson doesn’t get called a “control freak” because his shambolic appearance and blustery speechifying seems to deny it. Yet I can think of no previous regime at Number 10 that was more determined to concentrate power in its own hands – and that includes those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
One of the shared convictions between the top trio is that the destiny of nations is governed by a small and select number of supernatural individuals who have a grasp of the true path that eludes others. Mr Johnson is a fervent believer in the Great Man theory of history, with himself cast, at least in his own head, as the Great Man of this period. After a lifetime wanting to be Winston Churchill, a more recent aspiration is to be compared with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ludicrous that may be, but it does reflect how his mind works. Michael Gove is a believer in the power of tightly knit groups of driven men to effect revolutionary change. He used to keep a picture of Lenin, a Great Man if not a great man, on his office wall. Mr Cummings is the same, only more so. He recently issued a reading list to ministerial special advisers. One of his recommended titles is High Output Management, written by Andy Grove, who was a transformative boss of Intel. His most celebrated quotes are macho ones: “If you’re wrong, you will die” and “only the paranoid survive”.
Trying to explain why the other two men are so dependent on Mr Cummings, one senior Tory recently suggested to me that they envied the single-mindedness with which he pursues his agendas and his complete indifference to anyone else’s opinions. “Both Boris and Michael know they can be undisciplined. They think they need Dom’s ferocity to keep them focused.”
One consequence of rule by this Gang of Three is the degradation of the cabinet. According to several plausible accounts, the weekly cabinet meeting is an empty ritual with many present privately complaining that they are merely going through the motions because all the significant decisions are made elsewhere. The surprise is that they are surprised. This is a cabinet appointed not for its competence, but for its compliance. Whether we are talking about ministers or officials, Mr Johnson prefers to be surrounded by people who are indebted to him. He’s not the first prime minister to prize loyalty above merit, but few have done this quite so obviously. Most of his cabinet acquired their seats around the table not for their independence of thought or record of achievement, but for their devotion to a hard Brexit and obeisance to Number 10. With the possible exception of Rishi Sunak, and him only for so long as the chancellor is being judged to have had a good crisis, everyone at the high table knows they are dispensable at the whim of the central trio. Sajid Javid discovered that earlier in the year when he demanded that the prime minister choose between his then chancellor and Mr Cummings and the prime minister chose his adviser.
The Gang of Three have a shared conviction that they are uniquely gifted to guide the destiny of Britain, a conceit that was amplified by their victory in the Brexit referendum and then the 2019 election. “They basically think they are God’s chosen,” remarks one former cabinet minister. This certainty in their own rightness has not been disturbed by the multiple blunders they have presided over during the coronavirus crisis. Because they can’t be at fault, someone else must be culpable and a scapegoat has already been selected. Blaming the inadequacies of civil servants is not only politically convenient, it is also mentally comfortable because it fits with their pre-existing prejudices about Whitehall. Mr Cummings has never made a secret of his low regard for the civil service, a disdain so great that it exceeds even the contempt he has for most of the cabinet and Tory MPs. After a period of keeping his head down in the wake of his rule-breaking excursions to and around Durham, he announced the resumption of his war on the institutions by letting it be known that “a hard rain is coming” to the civil service. He did so by his usual method of making this very quotable remark to a room full of ministerial aides, from where it was magically disseminated into the media.
The storm clouds opened almost instantly and swept away Sir Mark Sedwill, who was effectively sacked as cabinet secretary after months of anonymous briefing against the country’s most senior official. Sir Philip Rutnam had already quit as permanent secretary at the Home Office, complaining that he had been the “target of a vicious and orchestrated campaign against him”. Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and another name on a Downing Street “shit list” of officials they wanted gone, is on his way out. To lose one of the country’s most senior civil servants might be unfortunate. To lose three looks like a plan.
And there is a plan. The purge of Whitehall’s top rank not only gets rid of officials they don’t like or don’t rate; it also strokes a chilly finger down the spines of all other civil servants by sending a warning message of the fate that awaits them if they don’t get with the Gang of Three’s programme. The decorous version of their project was presented by Mr Gove in his recent Ditchley lecture on civil service reform. Whitehall has too many generalists and not enough specialists, he argued. Its senior levels are populated with too many people who write jargon-laden position papers and not enough people capable of effective implementation of policy. He further complained that Whitehall suffers from “groupthink” because departments “recruit in their own image” and government needs a “broader and deeper pool of decision-makers”.
You could, of course, say the same with knobs on about the many ministers who are non-specialist bluffers with no talent at delivery. The education secretary is a former salesman of fireplaces. Messrs Gove and Johnson both made their names as newspaper columnists. Mr Cummings is a humanities graduate whose only proven skills are as a political campaigner and the fabulator of implausible explanations for breaking lockdown rules. That said, there is a wide agreement that the coronavirus has exposed serious weaknesses in the machinery of government. There is much in the Govian diagnosis that a lot of people would agree with, including many who work in Whitehall. The big question is whether he and the rest of the Gang of Three have a genuine aspiration to improve the machinery of government or simply seek a civil service that stops speaking truth to power and becomes as slavishly subservient as the cabinet.
Given the high levels of suspicion that the latter is their true ambition, they would surely make a great effort to avoid any hint of cronyism about what they did next. Yet the very first senior appointment announced after Mr Gove’s speech was to award the role of national security adviser, made vacant by the coerced departure of Mr Sedwill, to David Frost. “Frosty”, as he is known in Number 10, has a resume that includes a spell as chief lobbyist for the Scotch Whisky Association as well as being the prime minister’s point man for the unfinished Brexit negotiations. He has no known expertise in intelligence, defence, cyberwarfare or counter-terrorism. “Why is the new national security adviser a political appointee with no proven experience in national security?” asked Theresa May. A good question to which the answer must be that “Frosty” is regarded as a loyal lieutenant.
“Groupthink” turns out to be something they deplore in others, but hugely admire in those who are part of their group and think the same way as they do. The Gang of Three are no keener to have senior officials who will challenge them than they are to have people in the cabinet who will argue with them.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer