Boris Johnson 'facing Cabinet anger' over Dominic Cummings' 'counter-productive' civil service shake-up plans

Posted On: 
12th January 2020

Ministers have warned Boris Johnson not to let Dominic Cummings press ahead with a "counter-productive" battle with the civil service.

Mr Cummings is a longstanding critic of the civil service.

The Sunday Times reports on tensions inside the Prime Minister's top team over plans being drawn up by his most senior adviser to overhaul Whitehall's working culture and merge its departments.

Mr Cummings is a longstanding critic of the civil service who has argued that "almost no one is ever fired" in an organisation in which "failure is normal".

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The senior adviser posted a blog earlier this month calling for more "weirdos and misfits" to email him directly to work in Number 10, a move that appeared to sidestep the civil service's conventional hiring rules.

Conservative manifesto co-author Rachel Wolf has also warned officials they could face regular exams under Mr Cummings in a bid to end an environment "where everyone rises to their position of incompetence".

But a Cabinet minister told the Sunday Times that productivity in Whitehall would "drop like a stone" if Number 10 picks a fight with the civil service, while one minister likened the proposal to "not so much throwing the baby out with the bath water" as "blowing the baby up and jumping on its grave".

Another said the proposals could prompt an exodus of top officials, warning: "Talented people will start casting around for other jobs elsewhere."

And a Cabinet minister added: "You are dislocating them from any kind of job security. If you do that right across Whitehall, don’t be surprised if productivity falls like a stone.

"You try and turn the civil service on its head at your peril. Productivity is never improved by, in effect, lining people up for the firing squad. Why should people go that extra mile for you to try and make you look good if they fear they are about to lose their jobs?"

The Cabinet dissent follows warnings from former top mandarins and Whitehall's unions that Mr Cummings is picking a "completely unnecessary" fight with the organisation.

The PM's senior aide frequently clashed with permanent civil servants during his time as a special adviser to Michael Gove during hist stint as education secretary.

In a 2014 lecture Mr Cummings called the concept of a permanent civil service "an idea for history books" and floated the abolition of permanent secretaries, the most senior official in each government department.

He said of Whitehall's culture: "It promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done, and it ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view."

It was reported earlier this week that Mr Johnson had already scaled back some plans to scrap several Whitehall departments as part of a wide-ranging shake-up set to take place next month.

The Department for International Development is understood to have been spared the axe despite suggestions it would be merged with the Foreign Office.

The Daily Mail meanwhile reported that ministers have shelved proposals to create a new borders and immigration department separate from the Home Office.