Don’t blame civil servants for Boris Johnson’s troubles. Look at Dominic Cummings instead – Bernard Ingham

FORTY years ago, I used to work in the Department of Energy with an old 
soldier, Wally Pryke, an officer and a gentleman, who was wont to say: “If Ministers get it wrong it is our [i.e. officials’] fault.”

Is Boris Johnson being let down by his advisers?

He was a generous soul.

Some of us sometimes felt that errant Ministers deserved the “drunken sailor treatment” – put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him”.

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If you subscribe to the Pryke 
principle, you know who to blame for 
the Government’s dire performance 
over the first eight months of this Parliament.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's senior aide Dominic Cummings leaves his north London home.

Officialdom has certainly a lot to answer for with the BTEC awards mess following the A-level and GCSE chaos.

But, as one who is professionally fascinated by the Government repeatedly making a pig’s ear of it, I do not believe it should take all the blame or even the lion’s part of it.

My conclusion is that there is something seriously wrong with the system.

I suspect it can be explained by Aneurin Bevan’s cruel dismissal of his leader, Harold Wilson – “all brains and no bloody judgment”.

Is Dominic Cummings to blame for Boris Johnson's difficulties?

Eggheads are two a penny in government, bursting with ideas, but making them work is another matter.

Take, for example, Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.

It was immaculately conceived by Oxford dons but was the very devil to 
sell.

I still think it would have curbed the excesses of local authorities, which always blame the government for their penury, but for Nigel Lawson’s losing control of inflation and interest rates by surreptitiously shadowing the D-mark – another case of brains overriding judgment.

At this point I should make it clear 
that my old Civil Service colleagues are as one in thanking the Lord they are 
not called upon to handle the corona-
virus crisis. Mistakes were bound to be made.

But our major reason is Boris Johnson’s laidback approach and centralisation.

No one can deny Boris is intellectually very bright.

Nor do I think his Ministers are brainless.

But who has he got round him?

“Every PM needs a Willie”, as Mrs Thatcher once innocently pronounced.

But where is the 2020 version of Willie Whitelaw, sniffing out nonsense and keeping the ship steady?

And where is there a man of the calibre of former Chief Whip, John Wakeham, to provide wise counsel and keep the troops in order?

Nowhere. Instead, Boris’s guide and mentor is a weirdo named Dominic Cummings.

He may be a brilliant campaigner and sloganiser but he is steadily proving he could not run a whelk stall.

He does not seem to have heard of Mario Cuomo, a former governor of 
New York, who explained: “You 
campaign in poetry. You govern in 
prose.”

Worse still, it seems that Michael 
Gove, who might have devilled for Johnson like Lord Whitelaw did for Mrs Thatcher, has swallowed Cummings’ de-stabilising reformist ideas hook, line and sinker.

The result is a certain detachment – an other-worldliness – that allowed Boris to disappear during the floods and then to his holiday tent in Scotland, and Cummings to flee to Durham during the lockdown.

On top of all this, the Government 
has been inundated with advice by a 
host of brainy professionals with impressive titles – scientists, medics, analysts, statisticians, etc – all reading 
the runes and feeding dodgy data into their computers and algorithms.

Judging from the stupendous 
output from seats of learning, they 
seem unabashed by their never getting 
it quite right and sometimes badly 
wrong.

I have had a healthy distrust of 
experts since 364 economists wrote to The Times in the early 1980s arguing we were doomed if Mrs Thatcher stuck to her housewifely economics.

How wrong can you get?

She revived the economy.

In short, I would advise Boris and his chum to recognise four things:

1 – They have made a very poor start, even allowing for the complexities of the pandemic;

2 – However much they distrust 
the “Europhile” Civil Service, they 
cannot do without its expertise – administration – and collective experience;

3 – The need to return to collegiate Cabinet government with collective responsibility; and

4 – Over-centralisation on No 10 does not work – except to lay all the blame on the centralisers.

That should improve matters. It’s a no-brainer, really.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

Editor