Understanding the Johnson-Cummings government reforms

What should Lib Dems make of the ‘radical’ constitutional, political, judicial and administrative reforms apparently pre-planned by the Johnson government and key adviser Dominic Cummings?

I shall try and shed some light.

Statements from Downing St have included scathing criticisms of the UK civil service. The substance of these, as far as can be gleaned, include major changes to recruitment, departmental ‘tenure’ of civil servants, capital spending and the ability of ministers (not the public) to hold civil servants responsible for screw-ups, wastefulness or incompetence.

They criticise the alleged ‘blame avoidance merry-go-round ’ practice of keeping civil servants in post for short periods only, making it difficult to see who performs and who doesn’t, and to see which civil servants need to be ‘replaced by people from the private sector’. A radical shake up is also planned for equipment programmes, especially those in notoriously wasteful Ministry of Defence procurement.

Whilst many in the Lib Dems with experience of government support such criticisms, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they represent a Trojan Horse of civil service politicisation. This is especially so given the rest of the planned reforms; to the judiciary (appointment of judges, curtailing judicial review), parliament (reducing numbers of MPs, restricting the powers of parliament), the human rights basis of judgements (resiling from the European Convention), and steps to increase secrecy in government (in immigration, courts, terrorism, planning consents and in legal advice to government, for example).

These planned reforms contrast significantly with their vague, uncosted manifesto promises before the General Election; on the NHS, pensions, crime and so on. These appear to have been an exercise in merely replaying back to sections of the public, common phrases used in qualitative ‘focus group’ research, hence the absence of detail.

It is important however to understand that these Tory reforms are not just about control-freakery and reducing democracy.

In part, they arise from a belief that radical reforms will be urgently needed if economic losses from Brexit are to be very quickly replaced by a new ‘economic dynamism’; ie from ‘Global Britain’, scientific advances, Freeports, infrastructure investments, skills upgrades etc.

However there is a parallel belief that the civil service is so sclerotic and wasteful that by the time all the ‘pro-dynamism’ measures eventually come to fruition years later, the public will be tired of seeing only the downsides of the Brexit project and will have kicked out Boris.

What’s more, the government will be relying over the next two years on its spin machine to convince the public that NHS improvements (for example) are just round the corner, and that all the other disruptive reforms were always only possible after leaving the EU! All this might wear a bit thin, they fear, hence urgency.

This radical upheaval however will come to nothing. Two reasons.

First, many of the Tory governmental reforms on the 1980s and early 1990s driven by Cummings’ think tank colleagues, are to blame for the increased slothfulness & wastefulness of the British state; compulsory contracting out to an absurd level, monopsony among government suppliers, oligopolised utilities, PFI, ‘agencification’, government pay linked to ever-complex targets, financial opacity, centralisation, and decimation of local government autonomy, et al.

These reforms, coupled with cronyism and corruption born of excessive secrecy and spurious ‘commercial confidentiality’, led to all-pervasive conflicts of interest and a civil service defensively hiding behind abstract processes rather than outcomes for the public.

It was always going to be thus, absent of liberal reforms; greater transparency, accountability, decentralisation, a more inquisitive parliament, and anti-conflicts-of-interest measures in the civil service. These are all anathema to pro-Brexit Tories.

Second, Cummings and Johnson’s proposed ‘dynamism’ measures were never inhibited by the EU, including Freeports and increased trade outside the EU. They are therefore fatally neglectful of the real reasons why many previous attempts at ‘dynamism’ have run aground.

Lib Dems should respond accordingly.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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12 Comments

  • Jonathan Coulter 7th Jan '20 - 9:10pm

    Paul says: “Whilst many in the Lib Dems with experience of government support such criticisms, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they represent a Trojan Horse of civil service politicisation”. We really must resist this at all costs. It is a slippery slope to the cronyism that exists in so many countries, where civil servants owe their job to their personal relationship with politicians.

  • John Marriott 8th Jan '20 - 7:01am

    Oh dear, Mr Reynolds. All that effort for so little reward! I guess LDV devotees just can’t get their heads around Cummings. Perhaps they have other fish to fry. For what it’s worth, I reckon he’s a very dangerous guy. Putting him in with Johnson is like putting nitro in with glycerine!

  • Goerge Osborne warned that Brexit equals less public spending and people still voted for it, so reform probably means smaller state, less taxes, less welfare etc. The civil service gets in the way in the sense that when it feels itself threatened it will brief against ministers (Boris perhaps experienced this in the foreign office for different reasons)… I would like to see everyone in government/civil service put on minimum wage but then get a bonus related to their position and how well the departments are run, removing any link between department size and salaries to discourage the idea that big is better in terms of spending. Part of the bonus would be related to overall govn spending, a balanced budget maxing out the bonus whereas a Marxist spending spree would eliminate it (the PM et al then on minimum wage). This would then connect politicians and civil servants to the real world… perhaps too radical for the current govn.

  • George Osborne was just setting up an excuse for one of his “emergency” budgets. He was a one trick pony and one of the worst chancellors Britain ever produced.

  • @Paul Reynolds thank you for sharing your thoughts on what is happening. I found it helpful to get a summary to help shape my thinking on where we are.

    In a similar vein, Chuka has written an article that might be of interest:

    https://chuka.org.uk/article/boris-johnson-cannot-afford-to-take-the-confidence-of-businesses-for-granted-with-brexit-approaching/

    Last night his website had plenty of lib dem branding and links. All gone this morning. Not sure what this signifies (maybe nothing more than the election is over and he did not win his seat).

  • Peter Hirst 8th Jan '20 - 12:37pm

    It’s interesting that this government should prioritise reform of the civil service at this time. It’s tempting to think this is a response to not getting its way during the Brexit maneuvers as easily as it wanted. So, in the governments view it needs to steam line some procedures, put the government more firmly in control and remove some “bureaucratic” barriers to doing exactly what the government wants.

  • Much of this piece, and the responses to it, focus on civil service reform. However, Pauls article also mentions the appointment of judges, fewer MPs and restricting the powers of Parliament.
    I was under the impression that at present judges were appointed by Her Majesty, on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, so unless Dominic Cummings himself is doing the appointing, I’m not sure what the problem is. Many have suggested fewer MPs and the USA House of Reps has 435 members, so……..
    Not sure what what being suggested by “reducing power of parliament”. If that means handing power to local government then it sounds good, though that doesn’t seem like BJ’s style, somehow.

  • Chris Cory – our Lie Minister’s style would, no doubt, be to convert to some sort of presidential system, so the government can do whatever it likes whenever it likes, unchecked.

  • I guess this is only tangentially related, but hope the reason for mentioning it is clear.

    In the latest edition of Physics World (see http://physicsworld.com) I read an article on sociophysics (not yet online as far as I can see). The aim of sociophysics is to describe patterns of human behaviour using mathematical models.

    The sentence that stood out was: “As few as 2% more stubborn agents on one side puts the tipping point at a very low value of 17%, which leads to the unfortunate conclusion that to win a public debate , what matters is not convincing a majority of people from the start, but finding a way to increase the proportion of stubborn agents on your side (Physica A, volume 389, page 3619)”

    So, according to this theory, we need to persuade more stubborn people to join us!

  • John Marriott 9th Jan '20 - 7:07am

    Well, that’s a better response that surely Mr Reynolds’ piece deserved. Now, had it been on the Coalition or ‘What is a Liberal?’!

    Seriously though, if ‘Yes, Minister’ is how the Civil Service operates, then I’m all for reform. It’s just that I don’t really trust the motives of iconoclasts like Cummings and, to a lesser degree, Johnson. I personally want a Civil Service that remains impartial; but one that is prepared occasionally to think outside the box, and for ‘box’, read Southeast England!

  • During Ms von der Leyen’s speech at the London School of Economics yesterday, she emphasised the importance of prioritising key aspects of the EU’s relationship with the UK after the end of the year, saying without an extension of the transition period, it would not be possible to agree everything. The event was entitled Old friends, new beginnings: building another future for the EU-UK partnership – and speaking immediately afterwards, Professor Tony Travers, director of LSE London, told Express.co.uk it had been clear Ms von der Leyen was keen to look beyond Brexit as she seeks to make a mark during her tenure.
    https://worldabcnews.com/brexit-news-von-der-leyen-has-range-of-problems-says-expert-brexits-just-one-world-news/

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