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Dominic Cummings, and other useless gurus

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People in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’. In one of his rare insights, Michael Gove nailed the experts predicting economic disaster after Brexit, with words that are just as true for climate change and Covid scaremongering. But there’s another class of ‘experts’ who are just as clueless and yet manage this feat without an acronym.

Political gurus have little or no experience to suggest useful knowledge. They can be regarded by opponents as a considerable intellectual force even if malign. This sense merely adds to the impression of omniscience. The reality is they turn out to be as useless as the government machine they critique.

I was reminded of just how intellectually overrated this bunch of political shamans are whilst listening to the always interesting Triggernometry channel interviewing Steve Hilton, one time Head of Strategy to Prime Minister David Cameron, and the man behind the nebulous Big Society idea. Hilton has the perfect background to be a political guru and useless, having studied PPE at Oxford and worked in public relations. Hilton tellingly diagnoses the problems of government bureaucracy. Civil servants had a process called ‘write round’ (7:30 minutes into the interview) where proposed new regulations were given 48 hours for objections to be raised, otherwise the proposal was considered to be agreed. A marvellous job creation for bureaucrats. And easy enough to stop: simply require any new piece of red tape to need positive approval from all relevant departmental ministers. One could go further and adopt the suggestion of Sir John Redwood MP that any new rule can  be introduced only by taking out an old one. In short, create bureaucratic obstacles to the creation of bureaucracy.

However, the best Hilton could think of was to try to extend the review period to six days. He argued that the only way to stop red tape creep was to cut the size of the civil service by 50 per cent. This clearly won’t work because it’s such a radical change that no politician will ever agree to it and it would have to be implemented by civil servants, who would get rid of officials who were doing a useful job or reclassify them so they were not counted as civil servants (eg. create quangos or label them contractors). As Hilton admits in the interview, he had no experience of government when he took on the job and civil servants were able to run rings around him. Yeah, well, thanks for trying, Steve.

The modern guru’s guru is, or was, Dominic Cummings. After an early and unsuccessful attempt to establish an airline in Russia, Cummings has spent the whole of this millennium as a political hack, working on campaigns or as a political adviser. He has been spectacularly rude about anyone who does see things his way, dismissive of Boris Johnson and calling David Davis MP as ‘thick as mince’ and as ‘lazy as a toad’.

Cummings is most notorious for the Barnard Castle incident. Whilst he was pilloried for hypocrisy, there was little criticism of the irrationality of criminalising being outside during the covid hysteria. As I pointed out at the time of this lunatic repression, viral respiratory tract infections such as covid are not spread outdoors. Someone with even half as much intelligence as Cummings thinks he has would, after ‘testing his eyesight’ in the countryside, have reflected that being outside wasn’t so dangerous and limiting people to one hour outside made no sense. But why let facts and logic get in the way when you know best? Despite this, you can still find articles calling for more of Dominic Cummings.

One guru soon to make a comeback is Louise Casey, now Baroness Casey of Blackstock. She recently had a little series on Radio 4, pontificating on a variety of topics, with Tony Blair and Sadiq Khan contributing. She seems to be angling for a job in what looks likely to be a Labour government this year. ‘We need a change of government. This lot are spent’, she told the GuardianShe has said she could work with Keir Starmer, and with the Blairites pulling his strings, she must be a shoo-in for a senior policy adviser role with a Labour administration.

Casey’s first job with Blair’s government was head of the Rough Sleepers Unit, the ‘homelessness czar’. Having worked for housing charities, this is a matter she might know something about. Thereafter, Casey had a cornucopia of roles where it was not obvious she might have something to offer: Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, Respect Task Force, Victims’ Commissioner. Conservative governments continued giving her high-profile jobs: heading the Troubled Families programme and the investigation into the children’s services at Rotherham council after its child exploitation scandal; reviewing the spectator invasion of Wembley Stadium in 2021 at the final of the UEFA Euro tournament, and looking into the Metropolitan Police’s culture following the murder of Sarah Everard.

As to achievements, these have been disputed. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research found that the £1billion Troubled Families programme ‘did not translate into the range and size of impacts that might have been anticipated based on the original aspirations for the programme.’  Her review into the Met Police found (naturally) ‘institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia’ with the same poor definitions of these terms that plagued the Macpherson Report when it declares the Met institutionally racist.

How do they do it? I mean how do these people get away with convincing so many they have something useful to say about how we are governed? It’s a sign of the weakness of our political class that the gurus wield such influence. In Margaret Thatcher’s day ‘advisers advise and minister decide’ and when the line between the two was blurred there was trouble, as when her chancellor Nigel Lawson resigned over the perceived encroachment of an economic adviser into his domain. Our current elected politicians are largely weak or venal, or both, and so are happy to delegate making policy to others, giving their decisions the imprimatur of independence and expertise as well as creating a fall guy if things don’t work out. They then have more time to give the appearance of leadership without any of the substance. It’s another symptom, as Patrick Benham-Crosswell pointed out recently, of the low quality of public administration.

And how do the gurus have the chutzpah to keep pontificating given their dismal records? One probably just needs enough narcissism to be convinced of one’s own genius. Churchill is alleged to have said that success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm; if you have a sense of shame or a flicker of self-doubt, then you’re done for. And the gurus know that politicians can’t put too much blame on to them; after all, they gave them the jobs in the first place.

In the face of such mediocrity masquerading as political insight, one might, like Liz Hodgkinson, take solace in religious reflection. I suggest a relentless, simple and catchy re-statement of basic truths, known by football fans to get through to even the most bone-headed players, managers and club directors. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ is a long-time favourite of the terraces but those of less genteel disposition, and with a love of the richness of Anglo Saxon English, will find this variation on Village People’s Go West potentially more tuneful as well as cathartic.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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