Trump and Johnson face a common enemy in their complacent and costly establishments, but it is wrong to think they share a common approach to government business and finances. For the moment, all attention in Britain is focused on Brexit, but under Johnson’s predecessors, spending has become increasingly driven by process instead of outcomes. Johnson’s chief strategist has identified the reversal of this trend as offering the key to delivering outcomes in a post-Brexit UK while balancing the budget and reducing tax.
Superficially, the electorates of America and Britain share one thing in common. They have both become sick of the establishment’s arrogant presumption that it knows better than the common people. Donald Trump spotted it and won the presidency in the face of enormous hostility from the establishment, both Democrat and Republican, as well as the deep state comprised of unaccountable intelligence operators and bureaucrats. The year before, the Westminster establishment found ordinary people rebelled against its assumed right to run the affairs of the electorate.
In Britain, if a mistake was made, it was to offer a referendum which produced the wrong answer. That is how the establishment appears to see it. In America, the UK as well as in Europe an elite has emerged for which democracy has become an irritant. But the establishment knows the rules and cannot deny their validity. The electorates in America and Britain have now given their establishments an unpalatable message, that they overrated their own importance. The bureaucrats no longer represent the interests of the people. Quite simply, the establishment and its bureaucrats have broken their contract with their electors, drifting away from the primary reason for their existence. The ordinary person has had enough of being ignored.
The result is the establishment is being forced to fight for its survival. President Trump has been fighting this battle on behalf of the American people for nearly two years. The British establishment has been fighting a rear-guard action for three over Brexit. Neither establishment has yet been vanquished. In America, there are signs of an accommodation, a compromise, which will allow the state to gradually resume control. In the UK, the survival of Boris Johnson and his new government depends on his refusal to compromise in its fight against the establishment’s Europhiles and placemen.
Brexit is a conflict that is only now being forced to a conclusion after three years of a Remainer government trying to appear to comply with the referendum result, while locking the United Kingdom into the EU, potentially in perpetuity. The electorate rumbled it and threatened the ruling Conservative party with extinction. Recognising the danger, their parliamentary party in conjunction with the party membership ejected the complicit Theresa May and elected Boris Johnson to take the country out of the EU on the delayed date of 31 October.
It is by no means certain Johnson will succeed. Remainers are now fighting his government in the courts, with the Supreme Court due to adjudicate next Tuesday (17 September) on whether the prorogation of Parliament was legal. And a way has to be found around the Benn-Burt Law, the last act of Remainer MPs.
The behaviour of the opposition parties in Parliament has been unedifying. The public sees a parliament out of control under a partisan Speaker. Not surprisingly, the opinion polls are swinging more in support of Johnson’s Conservatives and against the other parties, widening the gulf even further between Parliament and the people its members are elected to serve. If Parliament had any public respect before recent events, then it has certainly lost it now.
The similarities between President Trump’s position fighting the Federal establishment and that of Boris Johnson fighting Westminster gives the impression to many international observers that Boris is a British version of The Donald. Trump is urging the British to leave the EU, and thinks Johnson is the man to do it. Johnson is happy to encourage Trump’s support for a quick, post-Brexit trade deal. They get on together well.
But they are not peas in the same pod. Johnson has shown a free-marketeer grasp over trade issues and the damage that tariffs can do, while Trump is an interventionist. And when it comes to deficit financing, the evidence is emerging that Boris will fund promised spending in education, policing and health by cutting bureaucracy rather than relying on deficit stimulation now to provide tax income tomorrow. This is where Dominic Cummings comes into play.
This article skims over recent developments in Britain’s fight to free itself from the EU, particularly with respect to the role of Cummings. Making a huge assumption that Johnson and Cummings manage to implement Brexit on 31 October and the Conservatives are re-elected in a general election shortly, it also looks at how the government is likely to fund its promised expenditure plans.
Cummings – the confident back-room operator
Dominic Cummings scares much of the Westminster establishment, with good reason: he is intent on destroying it in its current form and replacing it with a system that prioritises objectives, minimising non-essential political and administrative intervention. There will be no tolerance of virtue-signalling by ministers and pressure groups. Of the money allocated to a project, instead of a Pareto eighty per cent being spent on process and twenty per cent on the final objective, Cummings is bent on ensuring it is the other way around, even releasing funds to permit tax cuts while retaining a balanced budget.
But first Cummings is dedicated to achieving Brexit on 31 October, when he will have directed the strategy to remove Britain from under the stultifying regulations and bureaucracy emanating from EU membership, freeing him to pursue his ultimate objective. On Brexit, we can only watch developments, because outsiders can only guess the government’s next moves and the final outcome.
To understand more fully Cummings’s role as special advisor to Boris Johnson, his ambitions, intentions and prospects for success, it is worth delving into his personal story. He was born in Durham in North-East England to middle-class parents in 1971. He attended Durham School, a middle-of-the-road fee-paying school, and then attended Exeter College at Oxford University, graduating with a First in Ancient and Modern History.
Robin Lane Fox, his tutor in Ancient History described him in a recent BBC profile as “extremely aware of his own abilities and had every reason to be”. When asked who was cleverer, Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings, Lane Fox responded “Dominic is cleverer by a long way than Boris. Different class altogether”.
Lane Fox would also have known Johnson, who attended Oxford at Balliol, where he entered as a Brackenbury Scholar to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course in Ancient Greek and Latin Classics. But Johnson, who as a student appears to have lacked Cummings’s focus, only got a 2:1. However, his intellect should not be in doubt, and while one can understand Lane Fox underestimating Johnson due to his lack of intellectual focus, Cummings appears to have been exceptional.
His other tutor in Modern History was Norman Stone, who died in June. Stone was also a notable intellect, and in his day had been an advisor to Margaret Thatcher. Both Stone and Thatcher shared a distrust of the British and European establishments. Stone’s was based on his deep knowledge of European history, honed from his studies at Glasgow University. Smith’s association with Glasgow University would have also had a bearing on Stone’s free-market thinking. Adam Smith, the founder of economics as a human science, had been appointed as its Professor of Logic, and the following year he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy.[i]
Stone was a man who would cut to the quick and did not suffer mediocracy, let alone fools. He was a chain-smoking hard-drinking argumentative Glaswegian who would not have endeared himself to “the humourless halfwits who are the bedrock of university management and the political class”. As an example of his impiety and wit he came up with one of the best questions ever set in a Cambridge tripos: “Romanticism: masculine, feminine or neuter?”
In his own way, Stone wanted to help Mrs Thatcher undermine the rotten British political system, which by 1979 had drifted onto the rocks of socialism. The Thatcher revolution saved Britain by driving Marxist Labour into the wilderness, much as the Johnson/Cummings partnership seeks to today.
After Thatcher’s initial success against socialism, the establishment reconstituted itself on proto-capitalist lines and ejected her in 1990. Despite Stone’s brilliance, his influence and role as Thatcher’s foreign policy advisor on Europe and speech writer was sadly limited in the light of events. Stone would have found that with all its mediocracy, the establishment always regroups. But perhaps a more sober, focused and ruthless operator in his protégé might have a better chance. It appears that Stone quickly recognised Cummings’s intellect, and would have been attracted by his directness and sense of purpose. They were like-minded dissident geniuses.
Cummings learned about Thucydides from Fox Lane, and Bismarck from Stone. I see a parallel with TE Lawrence, another young man a century ago who was a loner, aloof from his contemporaries but with a remarkable intellect. In Lawrence’s case, he single-mindedly inspired Bedouin tribesmen to revolt against the Turks in Palestine, leading to the creation of nation states in the Middle East. As well as having Lawrence’s detached ability to analyse and lead, Cummings appears to possess Lawrence’s brilliant singlemindedness. He clearly identifies an objective and is ruthless in his focus and determination to achieve it, just as was Lawrence.
Cummings’ first serious role in government was as special advisor to Michael Gove, at that time David Cameron’s education secretary. He helped Gove push through many major reforms, and his view on the importance of the state getting education right and the means of achieving it is the subject of his 235-page essay, Some thoughts on education and political priorities.[ii] His ambition then and now is for Britain to become the school of the world, echoing Pericles’ description of Athens as the school of Greece.
In his essay, Cummings describes those in English politics and power as lacking structured and disciplined thought, being much more interested in appearing to be on the side of the poor and less able, than they are in raising standards. Policy debates had become little more than exercises in moral exhibitionism.
Crucially, from his essay he is convinced that enormous savings can be made in the administration of state education, enough to fund the achievement of end-objectives and still have money left over to spend elsewhere or to reduce spending overall. He also observes that savings from his focused approach can be made across all Whitehall departments. It is clear from his essay that he intends to release the funds for the new Johnson government’s proposed spending on education, policing and health by cutting spending on bureaucratic and political processes not essential to end objectives.
This has been attempted before. All attempts, and there have been many over the years, to have a bonfire of the quangos have failed. [Quango is an acronym which stands for quasi-autonomous non-government organisation, an arms-length entity set up by a government department, which usually add little value and much bureaucracy. It is estimated there are 742 quangos spending some £100bn annually, though estimates vary considerably].
Cummings’ approach to eliminating this waste appears to be different from previous attempts. He is the lead special adviser in a network of nearly a hundred “spads” (as at end-2018)[iii]. He is moulding them into a combined force, separate from both government and the civil service, responsible directly to him as well as their relevant ministers. This ensures that ministers will be advised in accordance with Cummings’ policy of cutting waste and increasing the effectiveness of decision making by focusing on objectives, and not process.
In effect, the continuing advice given to ministers by their departmental civil servants will be made to conform with the Cummings policy. It is no less than a carefully planned attempt to wrest control from a floundering political establishment to make government more efficient and objective in its aims. However, the initial task is to deliver Brexit on 31 October, and we are already seeing the consequences of the Cummings approach.
Cummings does not compromise in pursuing his objectives. He has ensured the removal of the whip from plotting Remainers in the Conservative parliamentary party in brutal, public fashion. Any special adviser not totally onside is treated equally brutally, one in the Treasury suspected of leaking having been sacked by him on the spot and marched out of Downing Street by an armed policeman. Whitehall has not in living memory seen this level of hard-headedness, focus and determination. And he is Boris Johnson’s real chef de cabinet.
The relationship with Boris was forged when they worked together on the Brexit referendum campaign where Boris was the front man and Cummings the operator. It suited Boris, who is an excellent delegator and was happy for Cummings to run the show on his and his political colleagues’ behalf. It is a relationship that continues to endure between two like-minded classicists. Boris’s other appointments, particularly in Gove, Javid, Rees-Moog and Raab, amount to an intellectually capable cabinet espousing free market economics. By restoring Cabinet discipline, Johnson has ensured ministers will be in tune with Cummings’s plans to reduce government’s operating costs to the lowest possible level. But their first task, to deliver Brexit, is still in play. With Cummings and Boris working on a plan towards a clear objective, they are likely to succeed against the Remainers, who beyond being disruptive, are incapable of coming up with any feasible strategy. But for the moment, we do not know how this will play out and can only speculate.
Britain’s future under a reforming government
Without a majority in the Commons and an antagonistic House of Lords it may seem premature to consider how a Johnson government will change the political landscape. However, much of the current uncertainty will disappear when an uncompromising Brexit is finally achieved, and the hastily formed alliance on the opposition benches can then be expected to collapse. This assumes the government finds a way of neutralising the Benn-Burt Law, which forces it to secure the approval of MPs for either a withdrawal agreement or leaving without a withdrawal agreement. If at the end of 19 October neither has been achieved, the Prime Minister must then have sought an extension of the Brexit date until at least 31 January 2020. But assuming a way is found around this hurdle, the loose coalition of opposition parties will have no binding reason for its existence. Scottish Nationalists and Liberals will then relish the prospect of taking Labour seats and support a move to a general election.
Following that election and assuming Johnson achieves a working majority, all the pointless, virtue-signalling politics that ministers who served under Mrs May and their departments indulged in will be confined to the opposition benches, since Cummings and his cohort of special advisers will expunge them from ministerial decision-making. Despite the headline numbers reflecting more spent at the point of delivery in all ministries, they should be adequately funded by the elimination of needless process. At least, that’s the plan.
This is why Johnson is not on the same page as Trump, at least when it comes to the prosecution of government business, and there is a strong likelihood his Chancellor will be able to run a balanced budget (all else being equal), compared with Trump’s deliberate ramping up of unfunded spending to perpetuate the illusion of American prosperity.
[i] I got to know Stone as a follower of my articles for Goldmoney. While he was not an economist, he was clearly in tune with free-market thinking.
[ii] See https://dominiccummings.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/20130825-some-thoughts-on-education-and-political-priorities-version-2-final.pdf
[iii] Annual Report of Special Advisers, 2018 (Cabinet Office)
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