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Corona Diaries: the downfall of a courtier?

May 24, 2020

Dominic Cummings hasn’t murdered anyone, at least as far as I know. Nor has he raped anyone, robbed a bank, swindled old ladies or plotted the downfall of Her Majesty.

Yet to judge by the cascade of sewage that’s been showering on his head since The Trip to Durham, you would think he’d done all these things and more. Manipulating the result of a critical referendum on his country’s future also comes to mind, but at the moment that falls under the heading of “other offences to be taken into consideration”.

What I find extraordinary is how much energy is being expended on preserving or wrecking the career of who is basically a courtier. Someone with no power in his own right, who serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, who should ordinarily be faceless, expendable and interchangeable.

The Affaire Cummings has been worked up by the media into a lengthy charge sheet. It’s a demonstration of lackeydom on the part of ministers who allegedly can’t stand him and yet take to the social media with one voice to defend him. It’s an unforgivable act of hypocrisy – that what’s good enough for Neil Ferguson isn’t good enough for Cummings – that undermines the entire government lockdown strategy. The government’s defence of Cummings is an insult to those who have stuck to the letter of the lockdown rules despite the severe emotional cost. And so on.

I have no view on the alleged offence, and I don’t really care whether or not he falls on his sword. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Guardian’s take. I do find it interesting that this quirky individual should have become so indispensable that Boris Johnson and his colleagues should be prepared to risk arguably the entire credibility of the government in order to retain him.

Politicians and monarchs have always had courtiers whose favoured status has aroused jealousy among others competing for power and influence. Even before Tony Blair, who effectively institutionalised the role of the special political adviser, there were kitchen cabinets, inner cabals and trusted influencers. But before Blair, most of them were “encouraged” to work within the traditional system, either through elevation to the peerage or by being found safe seats in the House of Commons.

Nowadays the SPADs, as they are known, are in practice a third arm of government, alongside the civil service and elected MPs. Cummings himself is the primus inter pares in this shadow executive of powerful influencers.

I like to think I know how this works, because I’ve seen something similar evolve.

During the Eighties, I spent most of the decade in Saudi Arabia. I was working for an American contractor that was responsible, it thought, for managing a critical sector of the country’s infrastructure. An assertive Saudi executive, who was nominally part of the civil service, had other ideas. So he set about establishing a group of trusted individuals, some Saudi, some foreign, who functioned as the “real organisation” alongside the notional organisation put in place by the Americans. He, and his group, made all the key decisions. I became part of his team.

I remember well how uncomfortable some of the American executives were when asked to put someone who was not a career employee into an executive position at the insistence of the Saudi boss whom they expected to be a mere figurehead. The discomfort was made worse by the fact that many of these executives were former military officers, for whom the chain of command was sacred.

So I can understand why senior civil servants and ministers must mutter “who the hell are you?” under their breath when some arrogant SPAD like Cummings starts telling them what to do.

For Boris Johnson and his predecessors, having advisers they can trust, who are not potential competitors, must seem essential. Politics is a vicious game. Within every cabinet there are a potential backstabbers, to the outside world loyal and supportive, but in reality waiting for the prime minister to make a fatal mistake. In the mind of a paranoid leader, their advice is potentially tainted by self-interest.

The civil service, on the other hand, is supposed to be politically impartial. This makes it not much use when a leader deems that self-preservation takes precedence over the interests of the country.

So how is a leader expected to govern without a team of political shock troops loyal only to him or her – the political equivalent of the Roman emperor’s Praetorian Guard and the Ottoman sultan’s Janissaries, if you like?

As for Cummings, I don’t know the man, so I don’t pretend to understand his motivation. But I suspect that while Boris feels that he needs him, the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. That he’s not a fanatical loyalist. And that he’s a hired gun whose reputation, bolstered by his recent track record in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election, would surely guarantee him another project if his current job goes away.

So perhaps he can easily afford to sit tight without worrying too much about what comes next.

Whatever becomes of Cummings, or Boris for that matter, in a decade or two the courtier will be a footnote. Some courtiers are long remembered, like Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s favourite, who ended up decapitated by powerful noblemen whom he had pissed off once too often. Others, like Peter Mandelson, made respectable if occasionally chequered careers for themselves. But most of them merit little more than a biography in Wikipedia.

As with many political scandals – if this is what the Affaire Cummings turns out to be – it won’t take that long for us to look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.

Whether he stays or goes, we have far more important things on our collective plates right now.

From → History, Politics, UK

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