Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan | Politics

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Dominic Cummings should stop denigrating senior civil servants by lumping them together as part of the same Oxbridge-educated, dinner party elite if he wants to build the necessary support in Whitehall for ambitious reforms to the government machine, one of the country’s most respected former mandarins has warned.

Sir David Normington served as permanent secretary at the Department for Education and then the Home Office between 2001 and 2010; from 2011 to 2016 he was first civil service commissioner, in charge of ensuring the effective working and neutrality of Whitehall. He told the Observer success for the prime minister’s chief adviser would depend on building support across government, not alienating key players within it.

“There is nothing wrong with blogs,” Normington said, referring to Cummings’s recent post in which he called for more “weirdos and misfits” to enter No 10 as advisers. “It is just some of the stuff he can’t resist saying about Oxbridge humanities graduates and so on. The underlying denigration of them is unhelpful, really, because it diverts attention from the interesting ideas he has.

“Many of these people he will need to work with. He is going to need to work with Whitehall, not against it. It is a big machine and one person can’t change it without lots of allies. You do need the machine.”

Normington said Cummings was “smart” and that his ideas should not be dismissed before more was known about them. But his needless stereotyping of civil servants would not help his cause now that he was at the heart of government.

The retired mandarin went on: “He would think that I was just another of those voices who was out of date and part of the liberal elite, I guess. But I have never been to those dinner parties he talks about. Perhaps I have missed out. Some would fit that stereotype but many, many would not.”

In a blog posted last week, Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, said he wanted more “true wild cards” to bypass the normal civil service recruitment processes by contacting him directly via email. Instead of “confident public school bluffers” and “Oxbridge humanities graduates” he said he wanted “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hellhole, weirdos from William Gibson novels”.

Cummings, who was educated at the fee-paying Durham School before studying history at Exeter College, Oxford, has been frustrated by the processes of Whitehall, and the ways of MPs and ministers, since first working for Michael Gove at the Department for Education during the 2010-15 coalition government.

As prime minister, David Cameron found Cummings’s behaviour so infuriating that he described him in 2014 as a “career psychopath”.

Lord (Bob) Kerslake.



Lord (Bob) Kerslake. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Normington also said that unless Cummings built support for his ideas among secretaries of state and their top civil servants – the permanent secretaries – he would struggle to deliver government reforms of public services. With MPs due to return to parliament on Tuesday, he added: “It is a hard slog to raise standards to improve the NHS, to improve the education system, to tackle immigration. You do need to have the management capabilities to do that and you have to connect your ideas with that long, hard slog of delivering the policy on the ground.”

He went on: “One of the things that happens in Whitehall is that if there are not enough supporters of these kinds of ideas, then opposition to them builds, or the person at the centre of them is ignored.”

The former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said that he found it extraordinary that no government minister had expressed an opinion about Whitehall reform, and that it had all been left to an unelected adviser. “If Dominic Cummings is now a de facto minister on these issues he should be able to be called to account through parliament.”

Kerslake said that with the government embarking on the second phase of Brexit in the coming weeks, and with an ambitious agenda planned for public service reform, a botched civil service shake-up was the last thing the country needed. “A badly handled reform of the civil service at a time when it is worn down by the demands of Brexit, and morale is fragile, will be bad news for the civil service and bad news for the government.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association, the trade union for senior civil servants, said it was worrying and unnerving for civil servants to have the prime minister’s chief adviser firing off ideas about the future of the service on a blog, as Cummings had done. “It should not be the case that 400,000 civil servants are reading about this sort of thing on a blog. If you have got a big policy agenda, what you need is civil servants working on that, not this reorganising of the deckchairs. It is the prime minister who is responsible. Nothing that Dominic Cummings says or does is done without the authority of the prime minister.”

Penman said that he had been approached in the run-up to the general election by large numbers of senior civil servants who had been worried that they might be called on to break the service code, which requires them to uphold “core values” of “integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality”. At the time, Cummings was pushing plans to shut down parliament in order to drive Brexit through.