he dramatic departure of Dominic Cummings, who warned that a “hard rain” was about to fall on the civil service, has been followed by a glimpse of winter sunshine in Whitehall. Although ministers insist they will press on with reform, Whitehall insiders tell me the “tide has turned” against the macho, confrontational approach favoured by Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s closest aide. Instead of smashing the crockery to see where the pieces landed, as the great disruptor Cummings wanted, politicians are finally trying to take Whitehall officials with them. About time, too.
Cabinet ministers are also pushing back against the “command and control” Downing Street operation, favoured since Johnson became prime minister. Ministers and officials joined forces to oppose a plan to axe up to 3,000 civil service press officers in government departments and concentrate power in the Cabinet Office. It was proposed by Lee Cain, a close Cummings ally since their days in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, who left his role as No 10’s director of communications the day before Cummings departed three weeks ago.
Cain wanted to limit each department’s communications team to around 30 officials – the big ones have about 200 – and see them employed by a stronger central unit in the Cabinet Office. It caused consternation among press officers who, typically, had not been forewarned they might lose their jobs, as they worked round the clock to help ministers in the coronavirus crisis, and who had to live with a cloud over their heads for five months.