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Mon 30 November 2020
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Boris Johnson’s chief aide has amassed unprecedented power and should be held to account, a new report suggests

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s premier adviser, should face scrutiny from MPs, a new report suggests.

Wielding vast power at the heart of Government, Cummings is at risk of breaching rules on the conduct of special advisers, the paper from the Institute for Government (IfG) claims.

The IfG – a think tank that analyses the UK’s political system – has released its new report today, after conducting extensive interviews with current and former special advisers, civil servants, and former secretaries of state.

The report sheds light on the power wielded by Boris Johnson’s special advisers – political staff who support the work of Government ministers – and gives a series of recommendations to reform the Downing Street machine.

Downing Street chief aide Cummings garners a lot of attention in this detailed, 47-page report. He is presented as the nexus of Government: someone with more power than some ministers, yet without the accountability.

“The greatest problem is that there is very little transparency about what role and remit these advisers have,” the report reads. “A problem made worse by Cummings’ apparent license to range widely across Government business.”

The IfG notes that special advisers should not authorise public expenditure or exercise any executive powers; rules that Cummings is at risk of violating. The report cites Cummings’ influential role in the Government’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy – something that led him to visit several high-security sites.

Cummings also reportedly acts as the martial of all Government special advisers. Chairing a weekly meeting of advisers from every department, the former Russian airline entrepreneur hands out “explicit tasks from Number 10” and “[maintains] discipline among advisers”. This is a breach of typical Downing Street protocol, the report suggests, given that previous administrations have used this weekly meeting merely as an information-sharing exercise.

The meetings “can also be combative, with reports that Cummings has threatened advisers’ jobs in meetings, and criticised advisers or departments that haven’t complied with his instructions,” the report goes on to note.

These are not empty threats, however. Cummings has fired special advisers – notably escorting Sonia Khan, adviser to then Chancellor Sajid Javid – out of Downing Street last year. On the whole, this has created a highly-centralised Government machine with unelected Downing Street advisers running the country, rather than ministers.

This centralisation is so profound, the report suggests, that Number 10 in some cases now hands ministers a shortlist of acceptable candidates, when they advertise for a new departmental adviser; a situation that “both disempowers that minister and creates an unproductive atmosphere of fear among advisers,” the IfG contends.

So what can be done? If the Prime Minister is determined to maintain this formula for Government – concentrating power among Downing Street advisers – then greater accountability is required, the report says.

It shouldn’t become a regular occurrence for special advisers to appear before Parliamentary committees – a state of affairs that would further undermine ministers. However, given “the breadth of responsibilities for key advisers like Cummings, and the need for Parliament to understand how the Government works,” they should be encouraged to occasionally appear before MPs.

Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely that Cummings will subject himself to a barrage of questions from MPs any time soon. The former Vote Leave campaign chief has been in contempt of Parliament since last year, due to his refusal to appear before a committee investigating fake news during the EU referendum campaign.

Until he does, Cummings will continue to wield vast power with little accountability to MPs or the public at large. But of course it is the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels that are the scourge on British democracy; or so Cummings claims.


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