MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: Playground scuffles must end. And firm leadership begin
With all the grace and decorum of a playground scuffle over lunch money, several of the unelected men and women who cluster round the Prime Minister last week went to war with each other.
Two people who have been close to Boris Johnson are now out in the cold after undignified departures.
Questions are being raised over the apparent power of those without formal positions or elective office. Some point out that the voters chose a Prime Minister to take decisions, but not his partner.
With all the grace and decorum of a playground scuffle over lunch money, several of the unelected men and women who cluster round the Prime Minister last week went to war with each other. Dominic Cummings is pictured left while the PM is seen right
And a puzzled nation is left wondering who is really in charge in the most important suite of offices in the country.
These messy, spiteful events gave us an insight into the actual importance, and the self-importance, of the new class of advisers that has arisen in Government in the past three decades.
Startlingly well paid, responsible to nobody, qualified mainly in ambition and backstairs manoeuvres, they have far more influence than most realise – and far more influence than they ought to have.
Especially since Tony Blair obtained special powers for his political bodyguard Alastair Campbell, this problem has been growing and spreading.
No doubt it sometimes brings brilliant people into Downing Street who would never have got there through Parliament, or through the conventional Civil Service. That was the case for Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s eccentric barefoot guru. And it was the case for Dominic Cummings, a wayward semi-genius whose weird appearance conceals huge political skills and surprisingly serious thinking.
It was he, after all, who played a big part in keeping Britain out of the euro, and in getting us out of the EU. He can take much of the credit for the current Tory majority in Parliament and the storming of the ‘Red Wall’ of supposedly impregnable Labour seats in industrial areas. He might, had he stayed, have had much to bring to the badly needed reform of the Civil Service.
Especially since Tony Blair obtained special powers for his political bodyguard Alastair Campbell, this problem has been growing and spreading
It would be a grave mistake if all the ideas and energy that Mr Cummings has contributed to modern politics are just junked and forgotten, especially at this crucial moment.
Sometimes he just spoke for common sense, sorely missing just now. There are undoubted merits in some environmental arguments. But anyone who thinks the Tories will retain or extend their Red Wall victories by building more windmills is deluded.
This squabble was almost certainly bound to happen. Downing Street suffers from all the strains and pressures that the country is now enduring, but at a higher temperature. Enormous egos, crammed into close proximity in the midst of a crisis, are likely to clash.
It does not help if the man in charge has sometimes been too willing to indulge his more forceful lieutenants. Collegiate government is all very well, but sometimes it has to give way to strong leadership.
The recent weakness of the House of Commons, now at last coming to an end, also did harm. Parliamentary accountability is needed to restrain officials and advisers.
But good can still come out of trouble. Boris Johnson, by remaking his circle of aides and learning from these events, can restore competence and calm to the corridors of No 10, while continuing to encourage original thought and wise government, especially as the Covid vaccine is introduced and as Britain finally relaunches itself as an independent power, after almost 50 years of subjection to the European Union.
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