In response to a series of adroit questions from Dean Russell about the structural and institutional lessons that might be derived from his experience, Cummings could only return to Johnson’s personal flaws, ‘like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other’. It’s true that ‘don’t elect Boris Johnson’ is a useful first step for dealing with any problem, but it is a little galling to hear it coming from the man who masterminded Johnson’s rise.
‘It’s ominous,’ a colleague at a post-92 university told me. ‘Some smaller, newer universities may go bust. This will leave working-class students with nowhere to go. Some of them cannot afford to study away from home, some have caring responsibilities.’
Cummings’s triumph over Javid illuminates the government’s likely trajectory. Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’ This entrenched conservatism has occasionally been praised – Keynes thought it a bulwark against madcap governmental wickedness – but has more often frustrated politicians of both left and right intent on reshaping the economy. Bringing its political wing under his influence suggests Cummings is eager to break the Treasury’s taboo, and serious about realising the Conservatives’ so far vague spending pledges, to firm up their potentially volatile electoral coalition. If he is serious about Whitehall reform, he also underestimates its complexity and intractability. The Treasury’s inertia is not caused by a few indolent spads at the top, easily replaced.
Dominic Cummings may want to seize control of the Civil Service recruitment machine but his scope to operate is probably limited to Number Ten patronage. He asks applicants to send a one-page letter and CV to a Gmail address, and says he ‘will try to answer as many as possible … but can’t promise an answer’. It’s an odd way to go about recruiting people, especially for someone who claims to be committed to ‘data-driven intelligence’.