Spads in Downing Street

Steve Hilton, Dominic Cummings, Fiona Hill & Nick Timothy

Steve Hilton

I must confess to having a soft spot for mavericks such as David Cameron's Spad Steve Hilton and Michael Gove/Boris Johnson's Spad Dominic Cummings. They were rightly critical of  Whitehall's many faults and fizzing with ideas of how to improve things. But they were very poor at understanding the concerns of those with whom they worked, and seldom willing to devote much time to consultation, explanation and persuasion.  Their critics said that they lacked empathy and therefore failed to read what was happening in their meetings.  John McTernan memorably commented that "You can't make hundreds of thousands of people march in one direction by shouting at one of them".

Mr Hilton therefore made surprisingly little impression in his 22 months in David Cameron's No.10.  Fellow Spad Giles Wilkes said that Mr Hilton was unable "to grasp a system he hoped to control.  He did not so much collide with reality as arrive late to meetings with it, shout at it, question what makes it tick, and then storm off, appalled at reality's obstinacy".

Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings appointment was in many ways more promising and more interesting.  He was genuinely interested in giving Whitehall a much needed shaking.  But he was unfortunately unwilling to work within the usual constitutional constraints, including respecting the views and status of Cabinet Ministers.  Not without reason, he became known as 'The Real Prime Minister'.

Immediately after his appointment by Prime Minister Johnson, Mr Cummings told all Whitehall's other Spads that he, rather than their Secretaries of State, was now their line manager.  This immediately removed one of the advantages of employing Spads - that they offered an independent political view of their departments' and wider government's policies.   It also meant that they could no longer easily be dismissed without due process or compensation. 

The pre-Johnson/Cummings legal position was that they were employed to assist a named Secretary of State and so were in effect redundant if that SoS lost their job.  They could also (under UK employment law) easily be dismissed by their Secretary of State within two years - unless they could show that they had been a whistle-blower, or claim sex/race discrimination etc.  In practice, however, they were ambitious politicos and so were unlikely to damage their future career by claiming unfair dismissal.  Post-Cummings, they are now much more likely to object to being discarded by him, and it looked as though tribunal cases could become commonplace.

The IfG's Jill Rutter noted:

Dominic Cummings' first dismissal - of the Chancellor's Spad Sonia Khan - without the knowledge of the Chancellor - was so abrupt that she did indeed claim compensation for her dismissal.  Ms Khan claim drew attention to Spads' new employment status (see above).  Put shortly, they could no longer be dismissed without fair process or compensation.  In response, the Cabinet Office started building up a Spads HR team, and re-writing their employment contract. 

It was in some ways quite funny that Dominic Cummings' first organisational intervention led to more internal red tape and strengthened the employment position of Spads.  It was even funnier that Ms Khan's inevitable compensation was announced on the same day that Mr Cummings was ejected from Downing Street - see below.  It was interesting, too, that it was later admitted that the Cabinet Secretary had wanted to settle with Ms Khan but the Prime Minister directed him to test her claim in litigation believing that the Prime Minister 'can withdraw consent for the appointment of any Special Adviser" without paying any compensation other than that ordinarily provided for in the contract of employment .

Ex-Minister David Laws commented that Mr Cummings is "very good at defining himself against things like the north-east assembly, the EU ... or David Cameron.  Now he has to show he can deliver not just bloody good campaigns but something positive".

Iain Martin - a right of centre commentator  - later opined that "Cummings has proved himself to be totally hopeless when it comes to the business of implementing his lifetime's ambition, that is remaking the machinery of the UK state.  It is not enough to be a renegade campaigner who thinks everyone else, bar your own fans, is an idiot.  Opponents have agency and sometimes they can even help.  Meaningful change in government is extremely tough to deliver and it requires guile and charm."

Margaret Thatcher's long-retired Press Spokesman, Bernard Ingham,  commented as follows:

What ... is Cummings wittering about? He is right in saying that the general run of senior Civil Servants is not at the cutting edge of science and technology on which he sets much store. They are not expected to be. Their job is to help devise and implement policy and process legislation through Parliament. That is a skill in itself.

They are not “gifted amateurs” – as no doubt in his more generous moments he sees them – but experts in the conduct of a democracy under first Ministerial and then Parliamentary control. I don’t care whether they have double firsts in ancient Latin, Greek or Sanskrit but whether they subject expert – weirdo?– advice to constructive questioning and stop Ministers making fools of themselves.

This is not a doddle. It often involves offering difficult choices – and the guts to present Ministers with unpalatable truths. Cummings should be very careful before he throws the baby out with the bathwater.

He is on firmer ground when he complains about senior civil servants being moved around too much so that, like rolling stones, they gather no moss – i.e a deep knowledge of their particular subject. But this ignores the need to widen the experience of rising Civil Servants and also give the burned out a new challenge.

He also complains that it seems nobody is ever sacked. It’s not true. Nobody can play fast and loose. But it is true that they are usually redeployed in the system as I once was for no other reason than Willie Whitelaw, moved to the Department of Employment from Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, arrived with his own press officer having, “in a weak moment”, promised to bring him back to London. Within six weeks I ended up in the new Department of Energy.

Cummings must be very careful what he wishes for in ending security of tenure. Does he want to destroy application and loyalty as so many purblind managers have done in the private sector with their insecure employment terms and conditions?

Put simply, life’s a balance. And one man’s impatience with the time it takes to get anything done – has he never heard of the legislative process? - and a portfolio of prejudices against the system has to be balanced against the absolute need for administrative expertise.  

The IfG published an excellent report in late 2020 summarising and commenting on the changes that had been made by th Johnson government.  Its summary noted that "Certain advisers in the current government, particularly Dominic Cummings, have attracted much public attention. But behind the headlines, the government has also been making changes to the recruitment and remit of, and relationships between, special advisers. Many of these changes are helping advisers to do their jobs more effectively, but others risk undermining advisers’ ability to provide support to their ministers"  The report is here.

Mr Cummings' power appeared even more remarkable as the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic became a huge domestic crisis.  He and other senior figures in government almost completely ignored civil service advice (grounded in decades of experience) in how to respond to such a crisis. He also put excessive pressure on civil servants to enter into very unsatisfactory contracts with private sector companies.  One email read:

 '... Someone please ensure that they have the £530k within 24 hours from now and report back to me it's been sent.  No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please - just send immediately.'

And Mr Cummings drove his family to Durham and Barnard Castle in clear breach of the advice that was being given to everyone else - and was being generally followed.   He then withstood huge pressure to resign, again sending quite wrong signals to the general public.

He was finally forced to resign after only 17 months in the job when he, and his great mate Lee Cain (Director of Communications), forced a showdown with three women who were vying for the PM's attention: Munira Mirza (Head of the Policy Unit),  Allegra Stratton (Press Secretary) and Carrie Symonds (The PM's partner). 

Follow this link to read a very perceptive early 2022 critique of Mr Cummings' strengths and weaknesses by Sam Freedman.  This sentence perhaps summarises the whole article:- 'Over many conversations and reading pretty much everything he’s ever written (which takes a while) I concluded that while he is usually right about politics, explaining his success as a campaigner, he is fundamentally wrong about how to design and manage system reform.'

There is more about Mr Cummings in the Civil Service Reform section of this website - and here in particular.

You can also follow this link to read what was said when he resigned.

Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy

The Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill duo were neither mavericks nor noticeable in any way other than that they were allowed far too much influence when supporting Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.  They ensured that she was far too insulated from the officials, and from the sort of issues and problems, with which most Secretaries of State have to learn to deal. It would have been much better for Mrs May and for the Government if she had not been as over-protected as she was.  The Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries of the day were at fault for allowing this to happen unless (as may have been the case) they were told by Prime Minister Cameron that Mrs May and her Spads were to be given special treatment.

By the time Mrs May arrived in 10 Downing Street it had become impossible to ask her and her two 'chiefs' to work in any other way. Tim Shipman has the following quote in his brilliant book "Fall Out",

'We went from sofa government with ten people to an armchair with two people in it. Your access to the PM was completely shut off. They didn't trust anyone."

Tim Shipman went on to report that "Ministers never knew if May had made decisions or whether the chiefs had done so on her behalf. The chiefs even appeared to overrule May." It was bound to end in tears - and it did.  They lasted only 11 months.


Martin Stanley

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