The favourites

From Piers Gaveston onwards, controversial courtiers have a long history in British politics.How unusual is Dominic Cummings?

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Special Advisor to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, at number 10 (© Tommy London/Alamy Live News)

The public denigration targeted at Dominic Cummings, the most senior special adviser to the Prime Minister, was matched only by the determination of both the premier and Cummings himself that he should remain in post. Following media reports of his actions during the coronavirus lockdown, over a million signatories of an online petition and a substantial section of the Conservative parliamentary party called for Cummings to go. He did not. For now, he still holds his position; and appears to continue to exercise a central co-ordinating role within government. Cabinet ministers are legally and politically responsible for their policy portfolios. But Cummings, deploying the confidence vested in him by Johnson, is in some accounts able to exercise a degree of coercion over them. How unusual is this position? How is it likely to develop? An historical approach to these questions is useful.

Courts—in the sense of the groups that surround powerful people—are integral to any political system. Monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers have people around them to advise them, to implement their decisions, to liaise with their allies, to undermine their opponents, to advance their public reputations, to take the blame for perceived failings, to comfort them. Often, courtiers specialise only in one or a few of these functions but those who perform most or all of them can become very important to the politician they serve: a favourite, or even the favourite.

However the position of being a favourite can be dangerous. To occupy it is to become a target. Opponents of a government can identify particular individuals as sinister forces. Supposed supporters or participants within an administration might also be hostile. The motives of members of this latter group can include objections to particular policies; or a desire to attack the leader without appearing disloyal, using the courtier as a proxy. They might also resent the idea of someone achieving undeserved proximity to power through ingratiating themselves with the leader.

These various dynamics have left a deep imprint on the political history of the United Kingdom and its precursors. In the early 14th century, Edward II generated tensions through his proclivity for single favoured aides: Piers Gaveston, killed by barons in 1312; and later Hugh Despenser, executed in 1326 after the fall of Edward. Henry VIII relied heavily on certain assistants. Both Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell were of modest beginnings and owed their advancement to Henry, who was willing and able to dispense with them when the time came. Objections to alleged pernicious influences continued. Indeed the Bill of Rights, passed in 1689, opens with a condemnation of James II/VII for acting “by the Assistance of diverse evill Councellors”.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a new figure emerged as the pre-eminent political leader: the Prime Minister. Robert Walpole, commonly regarded as the first premier, had a number of helpers. They included John Scrope—in some ways a predecessor to the Cabinet Secretary of today. Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, helped handle the Church of England and ensure its political loyalty, earning himself the label “Walpole’s Pope”. Nicholas Paxton had the task of securing favourable press coverage, through surreptitious use of government funds. However useful these and other aides were, they were also a focus for criticism. Writers such as Alexander Pope and John Gay, opponents of the administration, obliquely criticised their activities. After Walpole lost office in 1742, a parliamentary committee set out to expose the system he had maintained, and prosecute him for corruption. It struggled to acquire evidence from his former staff, and its efforts to construct a case failed.

In the 19th century, William Gladstone deployed a large group of secretaries and other assistants. Among them were Lord Acton, the noted historian. Acton famously observed that power tends to corrupt; and his closeness to Gladstone seems to have encouraged unattractive traits on his part. In 1892, he helped Gladstone on an election campaign, including with manifesto drafting and—after successfully returning to power—decisions about Cabinet formation. But senior Liberals, objecting to his behaviour, had Acton excluded from high-level party meetings.

Benjamin Disraeli tended to vest much responsibility in a single private secretary, Montagu Corry. When Disraeli had Corry appointed a member of the House of Lords (as Lord Rowton), he supposedly provoked Gladstone to make comparisons with the insistence of the Emperor Caligula that his horse be made a Senator. In the early 20th century, Arthur Balfour relied heavily on a single aide, Jack Sandars, delegating responsibility to him on a scale that is comparable to the Johnson-Cummings relationship.  David Lloyd George deployed a large team of aides that led to his being likened to a president. In the period after the First World War, the career Civil Service became an increasingly powerful entity. While the staff surrounding premiers were once mainly their own personal appointments, representatives of this permanent institution became preponderant within their teams. A civil servant, Horace Wilson, attained fame or notoriety for assisting Neville Chamberlain in his appeasement policy in the late 1930s. But while permanent officials could play a useful role, the desire to have their own people within a personal court was strong on the part of many prime ministers, and encouraged an important development that remains with us today.

In 1964, the experiment in the use of special advisers as a more formalised part of government began under the incoming Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. The total employed across the whole of Whitehall over the next decade never rose much over about ten. But they made an impact within government, and attracted attention outside it. The most notable person to perform the role in this early period was the Hungarian economist Thomas Balogh. An advocate of a socialist planning model, though he and Cummings might seem an unlikely pairing, there are striking similarities between them. Cummings is known for his robust personal approach and disdain for established values and institutions. He has reserved special criticism for the Civil Service and the supposed lack of ability among many of its staff to perform the tasks required of them. In his blog he complained that: “Shuffling some people who are expected to be general managers is a natural thing but it is clear Whitehall does this too much while also not training general management skills properly. There are not enough people with deep expertise in specific fields.” His stated intention was to import and distribute across government staff who met his particular criteria—including those he described as “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

Half a century before, Balogh attracted attention for his abrasive personality and disparaging attitude towards the very institution he came to work within. One contemporary press article described his reputation of being “incapable of taking yes for an answer”. Balogh was at least as hostile to those from rival factions within his own party, Labour, as to those outside it. And he had made plain his hostility to the Civil Service. In a 1959 essay, he described a generic senior civil servant as being a “smooth, extrovert conformist with good connexions and no knowledge of modern problems, or of up-to-date techniques of getting that information”. Balogh advocated appointing “expert opinion from outside, sharing the point of view of the Government of the day . . . at senior levels”. For him, “So long as Labour hankers after being accepted by the old ‘Establishment’, instead of creating its own, so long will it be in an awkward position, forced mainly on the defensive.”

Unsurprisingly, Balogh became a continual source of negative publicity outside government and disputes within it. Problems arose from his attempts to intervene in the work of the departments; and his insistence on obtaining access to official papers. Eventually, though Balogh was an old friend, Wilson became worn down. In 1968 Wilson was able to ease Balogh away from his role as a prime-ministerial aide, relying more on other members of his inner circle or “Kitchen Cabinet”, as it was known.

The special adviser experiment Wilson embarked upon generated tensions. But ever since this point, prime ministers have continued it in some form. An important expansion came in 1974, when Wilson returned to office. Increased numbers were spread across Whitehall, with Cabinet ministers generally employing up to two each. Wilson also formed a Policy Unit at No. 10 Downing Street, with about seven to ten special advisers working within it. Its first head was the political scientist, Bernard Donoughue. When it was put to him that he might assume responsibility for all special advisers across the government, he firmly declined on the grounds that he would be taking on responsibility for individuals over whom he lacked control. Here is a clear difference from Cummings, who seems to have eagerly seized and exercised the oversight role that Donoughue rejected. Indeed, Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in February this year because of objections to his own team of aides being supplanted by appointments imposed from No. 10; in his resignation speech, Javid referred pointedly to “comings and goings”.

At the most recent count in late 2019, there were about 108 full-time equivalent special advisers, of whom 44 were working at No. 10. Though most of these aides have remained relatively unknown, certain individuals have fitted into the mould of controversial—even toxic—courtier. Alan Walters, economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher, was the immediate cause of the resignation of Nigel Lawson as Chancellor in 1989.He felt the aide was undermining him in the media. Under Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell attracted notoriety, including for his involvement in the presentation of intelligence material about the weapons capabilities of the Saddam Hussein regime. Campbell and Jonathan Powell, a former diplomat and Blair’s Chief of Staff, are unique among special advisers (even Cummings) in that Blair had the legal authority to manage regular civil servants vested in them. What difference possession of this power made in practice is difficult to discern, however.

Under Gordon Brown, Damian McBride, previously a Treasury career official, left his post at No. 10 after being exposed as discussing the possibility of online smearing of Conservative politicians. In the David Cameron era, Andy Coulson resigned in 2011 in the wake of growing scrutiny of his connections to phone-hacking during his time as editor of the News of the World. He later served a prison sentence for his role in this criminal activity. Then, in 2017, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, joint Chiefs of Staff to Theresa May, both left No. 10 when held culpable for the disappointing Conservative performance in the General Election of that year.

It is tempting, then, to see Cummings as the latest in a long list of favourites of political leaders, of which special advisers to prime ministers are a subset. His controversial public persona, his proximity to Johnson, the activities in which he is involved and the tension surrounding him inside the government and the Conservative Party, are all familiar tendencies. Nonetheless, in some respects he lies towards the extreme. Particular outlying characteristics include the extent of the authority that Johnson has chosen to entrust in him; the way in which the Prime Minister seems to have placed him above all other advisers; the reach he has achieved across Whitehall; and the way in which he has attracted publicity as a figure in his own right, for instance through his blog and holding his own press conference in the No. 10 rose garden. Another exceptional characteristic has been the determination he has inspired in Johnson to retain his services in the face of rising resentment. But however powerful he may seem in practice, it is the Prime Minister who is constitutionally accountable for his actions, and who must answer for what he does. Cummings derives any authority he has from Johnson. The experience of history is that—eventually—favourites tend to outlive their usefulness. The politicians they support need the judgement to recognise when this point has been reached, and the determination to rid themselves of a spent courtier. Otherwise they risk a fall of their own.