Dominic Cummings’ Role in The Great Procurement ScandalShows He is Not a Mastermind
Dominic Cummings failed to reform the procurement process and in doing so exposed his hollow intellectual posturing, argues Sam Bright
It has been more than a week now since Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings grabbed his gilet and, doubtless committing to memory all of Boris Johnson’s many secrets, marched very publicly out of government.
It has been reported that the Prime Minister had grown tired of Cummings’ confrontational, alienating style of management. Johnson was the frustrated parent who decided it was time for Cummings to find a job. Or, in this case, a different one.
The idea was, allegedly, that Cummings’ departure would usher in a new, less controversial era of government.
Yet, in the time since, Johnson’s kinder, gentler administration has been mired in accusations of cronyism and largesse. After months of pressure from Byline Times, the Good Law Project and others, the scandal surrounding the Government’s procurement of services during the pandemic finally punctured the mainstream.
Last Tuesday, the BBC covered the case of a Spanish businessman, paid £21 million in taxpayer cash for acting as a middle-man on behalf of a Florida-based fashion designer, who had been commissioned by the Government to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). Compounding and validating the scandal, the National Audit Office released a report, accusing the Government of awarding contracts during the pandemic worth £10.5 billion without competition, of ignoring basic conflicts of interest and of not acting with appropriate transparency.
Labour Leader Keir Starmer raised the scandal at Prime Minister’s Questions and, rather than defending his Government’s actions, Johnson merely accused Starmer of hypocrisy. There was a dangerous deficit of PPE during the early stages of the pandemic, which Starmer and others urged to be plugged, Johnson asserted. Of course, we weren’t suggesting that cronyism was the solution.
An Awkward Genius, Or Just Awkward?
Ultimately, although Johnson bears responsibility for this scandal as Prime Minister, procurement decisions will have been made further down the food chain – by people like Dominic Cummings.
Indeed, multiple reports suggest that Cummings poured his energies into “reforming the Government procurement process” in recent months, while departments awarded £18 billion to private sector firms in Coronavirus-related contracts.
In the midst of this procurement splurge, Cummings must have been thankful for the opportunity to reform a system he blacklisted last March, a few months before he was hired by Johnson. In a blog post, Cummings lamented the “billions of pounds” of public money “enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”. Blasting a system based on patronage rather than aptitude, he accused the procurement process of “hugely [favouring] large established companies with powerful political connections – true corporate looters”.
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The irony is stark. Allegedly under the duress of Cummings, the Government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been to effectively sub-contract services to a range of politically-connected firms and big-ticket consultancy giants. Even Cummings’ pet project, Brexit, hasn’t been immune to this corporate devolution. As Byline Times revealed last month, the Cabinet Office is set to pay £180 million for management consultants to handle the end of the transition period.
How did this happen? How did Cummings turn into an agent of a system he said was flawed, inefficient and even corrupt?
The first explanation is likely his exaggerated importance in Government. On matters pertaining to politics and the media, he was the lynchpin of Johnson’s regime. The Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament last year, a crude attempt to bounce MPs into accepting his Brexit deal, was a Cummings trademark. And the Cabinet’s boycott of hostile TV and radio programmes, a decision reversed the day after Cummings’ departure, was also characteristic of his antagonistic approach.
However, beyond political pageantry, Cummings has proven to be inept. If we consider his efforts to reform government and implement lasting policies, it is difficult to think of a single notch in his belt. As catalogued by David Hencke in this newspaper, Cummings has merely overseen a dramatic centralisation of data and power in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office; not exactly the techno-libertarian nirvana he envisaged.
Despite his intellectual pretence, Cummings specialises in running misleading political campaigns and being rude to people. One of his few lasting legacies will be the successful effort to force out several senior civil servants – another example of his aptitude as an enforcer, not a strategist.
Secondly, though Cummings previously preached the evils of corporatism – the occupation of the state by big business – his alternative fosters the same outcome. In his aforementioned blog, Cummings rails against EU strictures, saying its “complex, slow and wasteful” procurement process benefits the corporate giants that can navigate the system.
This is not an entirely unfair criticism, although the UK does have a large degree of flexibility in setting its own procurement rules. The problem, however, is that a lack of regulation, like too much regulation, creates a preferential procurement system.
Ironically, during the Coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the manifestation of both. On the one hand, corporate hulks have won contracts to effectively manage the pandemic, because they have pre-existing relationships with the Government, and are the only businesses that can manage the scope of work.
Yet, equally, ditching regulations during the pandemic has led to appalling bias. Contracts have been outsourced to companies with close ties to the Government, and to small firms with little demonstrable experience in the work they have been asked to deliver. Cummings has even been a direct, personal culprit of this, with Coronavirus-related work awarded to his former Government colleagues.
Perhaps the Prime Minister became tired of an advisor who was breaking dozens of eggs, without an omelette in sight. Indeed, the attractiveness of the awkward genius rapidly diminishes when it’s realised he is simply awkward. Blogging and campaigning are very different to governing – as Cummings has now found out.
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