Thursday 29 April 2021

Mr Duncan Smith is incompetent and must go

In 2003, a thrusting young libertarian intellectual, or "incel prat" as we now know them, a certain Dominic Cummings, threw a cliché grenade or two into the jumble of what then passed for modern Conservatism.

Here he writes in the Telegraph, setting out his stall to lead to a land of libertarian milk and privatised honey. He got the power, for a while, and we got shafted.

The thoughts of Chairman Dom follow:

After the anti-euro campaign's advertisement, with Bob Geldof et al last year, the Tory high command gathered. "It's a piece of stupidity," said one current leadership candidate. Another said, "We need another 'Save the pound' day." I said that the prospect of another "Save the pound" day could only confirm that we were clueless about effective political action. Iain Duncan Smith said: "We all agree. It'll keep the members happy - but the media won't notice."

(I clutched my head, but reflected that it was not as bad as a recent meeting in which the same cast of characters had described the party's salvation as: "Labour's computer system in the 1997 election - we need one"; "a campaign to persuade people Railtrack is good"; and "we need a blizzard of attacks"; then - the inevitable - "We all agree.")

The proposer of the "Save the pound" day asked, "Is this PMQ territory, Leader?", which was the daily reminder that we would achieve nothing. Afterwards, Conservative Central Office's top officials clutched their heads and said, "They'll have forgotten about it by tomorrow and we'll do nothing anyway." Thus, another shocking day began in Tory-world.

Mr Duncan Smith is incompetent, would be a worse prime minister than Tony Blair, and must be replaced. He is, however, the symptom rather than cause of a party desperately short of the political essentials: understanding, talent, will and adaptation. Even the most acute observers ask, "Why did they do that?", searching for a rationale. But they ought instead to think about Soviet institutions: when one considers these, one emerges thinking not, "Why did they do that?", but, "Given the people and structures, how could they do anything other than fail?"

There are many talented people working for the party who have been failed dismally by the leadership. The party is a joke - around the country, people increasingly laugh at "the Conservative Party". Senior figures do not try, which makes it impossible to motivate a successful team. The management structure is institutionally incompetent. Their language defines them as a separatist caste rather than national representatives. They do not understand that Mr Blair's failure is a necessary but insufficient cause of people saying: "The Tories are preferable". They do not understand modern society, communications.

When I arrived, there was no forum whatsoever for discussing medium-term planning - they literally had no idea what they were doing, and it took me a month just to initiate a group to discuss the point of the party. They dismiss the concept of building intellectual and political coalitions behind policy - a long, hard slog involving huge effort. "Events, dear boy, events" has been elevated to a management principle.

The meltdown of the Tories has occurred in parallel with the historically necessary pre-condition for a generational shift in opinion - the practical experience of failure, of "tax and spend", centralised public services, the EU, welfare, and "modern" policing. In all of these areas, the Tories should be transforming conventional wisdom and building new coalitions. Instead, we have failed in every area.

Tebbitites and some Portillistas have stuck us with a series of false dichotomies: the answer is neither "gay candidates", "soft on drugs", "be nice", and "image" - nor "tax cuts", "be proper Tories", or just "whack Blair". Success requires a synthesis of structural, policy, and communications transformation, as with all successful machines. It requires modernising communications and candidate selection - and the point is that these political techniques allow one to be tough on tax, Europe, and asylum. Mr Blair did not stop talking about the NHS and President Bush had a tax cut, but both knew that this was not enough. There is no magic bullet that will blow Mr Blair away.

All parties are suffering a talent blight because the crucible of democratic society - local civil society - is being destroyed by centralisation in Westminster and the EU. In the short term, the Tories must promote young, talented MPs. In the medium term, only if local politics becomes as important as it is in America (and was here) will a democratic renaissance be catalysed and services improved, via tough local competition for money, people, and ideas.

The theme of "trust people", which I proposed to Mr Duncan Smith in January last year but which has barely been developed, cuts across Europe; the Union; why services are failing and how to improve them; party reform (primaries) and constitutional reform; how we can cut national taxes and devolve services (such that local mayors can kick police out of their cars).

We need a moral explanation of why things are failing and why locals and families need to be empowered more and taxed less ("If you're on below average income, I'll send you a cheque for X"). The Right has, as Hayek pointed out, consistently failed to appreciate the critical importance of politics' moral front. Education and corporate governance reform ought to be the centre of the new leader's message (also necessary, since we will depend in coming decades on the exploration of new science and the survival of liberal markets).

We need a shift from trivial attacks to a coherent alternative; from reactionary whining to Reaganite optimism; from self-justification to adult honesty; from members' priorities to national priorities. We need an injection of intellectual thought and marketing talent, fused into a transformation of the policies, and constitutional change so non-MPs can fulfil executive functions.

The Tory collapse is particularly damaging given the threat we face from the transfer of enormous powers to an EU institutional matrix doomed to demographic collapse, economic decline and political extremism. We ought to be able to connect the ever-greater threats (new science, new powers, new terror) and political opportunities.

It is time for an alliance of serious Tories, donors and members to reflect on the maelstrom sweeping the globe and the party's true situation, and dictate a series of reforms that gives a chance of revival. When somebody said that nobody was capable of coping with the chaos of 1917, Lenin replied, "There is such a party!", and how right he (unfortunately) was. Who now will say the same?

Dominic Cummings is a former director of strategy for the Conservative Party

Sunday 25 April 2021

Johnson v Cummings, seconds out, round two

The Times, the organ of Murdoch's Saruman and Gove's Wormtongue, attempts an even-handed view of the Johnson/Cummings battle. They don't quite succeed as they describe Boris Johnson's struggles - the man who would be king but is merely cut out to be a slightly posher Rod Liddle.

Times article follows: read on for a tale of spies and inaccurately-hurled mud pies.

Guerrilla warfare: Johnson steels himself for final assault from Cummings

Even Boris Johnson's closest allies have compared the prime minister to one of Shakespeare's most tragic heroes: King Lear. After arguably one of his toughest weeks in Downing Street, Johnson suffered his greatest betrayal when his once loyal lieutenant, Dominic Cummings, eviscerated him in a 1,000-word blog post.

Those close to Johnson fear the treachery of his former chief adviser, accused of "systematic leaking", has pushed the prime minister over the edge. Just like Lear, the PM has been driven half mad.

In his post, Cummings denied Johnson's claims that he leaked details of the second lockdown and the prime minister's texts with the billionaire Brexiteer Sir James Dyson.

According to friends, Cummings had one aim in posting the missive: to pre-empt a stitch-up by the "establishment" that could land him in prison — an outcome he has privately feared since details emerged of irregular spending during the Brexit referendum.

However, its toxic effect has been to destabilise the prime minister and the government. Aides are only too conscious that Cummings has nothing to lose and believe he has enough "kompromat" to "destroy" Johnson when he gives evidence on Covid-19 to MPs on May 26.

They are especially concerned about emails in which the prime minister is allegedly dismissive about the potential death toll from Covid — or quoted as being so. Others believe Cummings has embarrassing details of his links to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai.

In contrast, Johnson feels he has only one secret weapon: Cummings's failure to deny that he leaked his texts with bin Salman over the proposed takeover of Newcastle United football club, which never went ahead. "He was waving round that omission like it was the big reveal," said a source who spoke to him last week. "Otherwise, I think that's all he has."

For months, Johnson had been enjoying his most stable spell in government, thanks to the successful vaccine rollout. Now a combination of Cummings, leaks and sleaze allegations threaten to engulf him.

One Downing Street insider said: "After the departure of his closest aides last year, the prime minister has become increasingly isolated and paranoid. He has become known in some circles as the King Lear prime minister and we all know how that ended up."

Last week after days of leaks, including the publication of private text messages between the prime minister and Dyson more than a year ago, Johnson finally "snapped".

"It was like death by a thousand cuts," said one Downing Street aide. "But the Dyson leak was the last straw."

In particular, Johnson has been concerned by the disclosure of details about the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat amid claims it was circuitously funded by a Tory donor.

The Electoral Commission is investigating. By Friday, the Cabinet Office had confirmed in a statement to parliament that Johnson would foot a residual bill of £58,000 himself. He has already used up the improvements allowance of £30,000 to which all new prime ministers are entitled for "structural work". The parliamentary move and decision to pay was clearly designed to draw a line under the matter.

"When stories about the flat first started emerging Boris was really ranting and raving about," said one insider. "He was clearly very rattled by it." Another source added: "He would often have what I would describe as a Lear-ish moment and rampaging around Downing Street demanding to know who was briefing against him." Last month, after the latest story on the redecoration of No 10, Johnson explicitly forbade aides in his leadership team from even speaking to Cummings.

A person who spoke to Johnson last week said the prime minister was "convinced" that his former chief adviser had declared war on him from the moment he left Downing Street in November.

Carrie Symonds, the PM's fiancée, is understood to have played a pivotal role in the ousting of Cummings and had been encouraging Johnson to take action.

On Thursday, the PM decided to finger Cummings for the leaks. It is suggested he may have briefed newspaper editors himself. It was a co-ordinated hit with the story appearing in three newspapers. The Daily Mail, which has been the outlet for most of the leaks, was left out.

Few aides in No 10 now believe Johnson made the right decision in launching the attack on Cummings, prompting Friday's incendiary riposte. It is understood that he overruled advisers who warned him that the move was "suicidal".

Some blame the recent departure of so many once-trusted aides for the PM's "error in judgement". He is without many of the people who stood by him throughout his first year and a half in office. Cummings, once loyal, is gone. So too is Lee Cain, once described as Johnson's right-hand-man. The PM has told friends that Cain has repeatedly tried to contact him but that he has ignored his texts.

Allegra Stratton has been elbowed out as press secretary by male aides and is now spokeswoman for the Cop26 climate change conference. Her planned regular live TV briefings have been scrapped.

Lord Udny-Lister, who has advised Johnson since his days as London mayor from 2008 onwards, has quit amid the lobbying scandal and is expected to join the private sector.

It is believed Cummings has embarrassing details of Johnson's links to Mohammed bin Salman It is believed Cummings has embarrassing details of Johnson's links to Mohammed bin Salman REUTERS No 10 aides are keen to contain the row with just days to go until the local elections. A Conservative Party Central Office source said: "There has not been an impact on polling as of yet but you never know when the mood can change."

The churn at No 10 is said to have left Johnson "vulnerable" and at the mercy of two relatively inexperienced operators: Simon Case, the 42-year-old cabinet secretary, and Dan Rosenfield, 44, his chief of staff. Neither man is deemed to have much political nous or Cummings's "willingness to get down in the mud and fight".

For months, Rosenfield has helped stabilise the No 10 operation and inject an apolitical professionalism in the building. But he is also seen by some as naive.

For instance, he was accused of imperilling his own job and the government's credibility after welcoming Ed Woodward, the chief executive of Manchester United, to No 10 ten days ago and appearing to offer support for the controversial European Super League.

Sources claim Rosenfield's conversations with Woodward emboldened the English clubs to back the scheme, heralding the biggest crisis in the game for decades. No 10 insists, however, that the Super League proposals were not discussed at the meeting, which was convened to discuss the safe return of fans and Covid passports for games. Sources accept that Woodward may have briefly met Johnson and left with the wrong impression that he was in favour of the proposal. Indeed within hours of the Super League plan being revealed, Johnson publicly opposed it.

Case is the subject of anger after quickly announcing a review into officials moonlighting in private sector jobs. His approach is seen to have made Udny-Lister's job untenable, with Johnson's consigliere having stayed on the payroll of two property firms while at No 10.

Johnson knows that Case is in shark-infested waters. On Monday the cabinet secretary will give evidence to MPs where he will no doubt be questioned about Cummings. One incendiary claim is that, after learning that it could implicate Henry Newman, a friend of Symonds, Johnson sought to shut down a previous inquiry into who leaked details of Britain's second lockdown.

Allies of Newman furiously denied Cummings's suggestion that he was the "chatty rat". They added that the leak inquiry was still active and dismissed Cummings's claim that he and Cain had been exonerated.

Despite his public displays of bravado, Cummings has long been haunted by a fear that he could end up in prison: either over irregular spending during the Brexit referendum or his conduct in government. Allies believe this prompted his "nuclear" reaction — in effect, an attempt to get on the front foot and publicise evidence of his innocence. But opponents believe Cummings may be right to fear sanctions.

They claim that MI5 has concluded that one person sent a WhatsApp message from the cabinet room just before 6pm on the day after the meeting last autumn where the new curbs in England were discussed. Six people were present: Johnson, Cummings, Cain, another political aide and two senior officials.

According to this account, Cummings was aggravated by Johnson's indecision and felt he had not been firing on all cylinders since his illness. He therefore decided to leak the news to bounce Johnson into it. MI5, it is claimed, has established that one person in the room had two SIM cards linked to them. That person, sources insist, was Cummings.

Last night, a government official said: "The investigation is still live and it would be wrong to think we have landed on any one individual or, for that matter, completely exonerated anyone."

The question for Johnson is what the unpredictable Cummings will do next. "This falling out was never going to end well," conceded one source.