A gothic gloom hovers menacingly over Whitehall as Baldemort (he who must be named after the Friday briefing) gathers his death eaters to take control of the Ministry of Magic to restore true Brexit purity and destroy the mud bloodied Remainer Muggles. Hit lists are being drawn up of the impure. Unsound Civil Servants, Avada Kadavra. The BBC, Expelliamus. With a sticky end for those judges who dare to road block the long march to freedom. And to set an example of what other departments can expect, Priti Patel, a latter day Delores Umbridge, reigns supreme (ish) over the Home Office. Well, for a while anyway.
Patel has an appalling track record of dealing with her civil servants. Once you have lost the respect and loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, the private office, your days are numbered. The right spin it as merely an impatient minister in a hurry. Who wants to get things done. Who is pitted against an incompetent brick wall of officials.
I hold no candle for Patel. To me she personifies everything that is wrong with certain politicians. Stupidity, arrogance and the bedside manner of doctor Crippen. However, the Home Office has long been known as a politician’s graveyard. They are dysfunctional. They have a reputation for briefing against ministers. They tried it against Willie Whitelaw and failed. And Ken Clarke. Amber Rudd was not so lucky. Theresa May survived by micromanagement. Whitelaw and Clarke by a mixture of steel and charm. Whitelaw was the master. If there was a briefing he disapproved of he would gather it’s authors into his office. ‘Thank you so much for your hard work. A wonderful briefing. Clear, concise and to the point. As I would expect from my officials. But would you mind terribly if we just left it there for the time being? Thank you so much’. And then the drinks cabinet would open. Nobody lost face and the Home Secretary would get his way without blood shed or bad feeling. What ministers need to appreciate is that the wheels of government turn more smoothly with the application of oil rather than acid.
Despite his many talents Dominic Cummings is a ridiculous figure. He appears to think that SPADS are far more important than ministers. That they control their thoughts, words and deeds. Actually, they don’t unless a minister is so dim that they aren’t allowed to wander without a carer. And there are too many of those. In many ways to the Cummings mind the SPAD reshuffle was more important than the ministerial one. He doesn’t need to be Johnson’s Beria. That’s the job of the Chief Whip who has one of his people posted in every department. They represent the Whip’s Office and not the department and are regularly moved so that they don’t go native.
In government we need young brains fizzing with ideas. But SPADS advise and ministers decide. It is not the other way round. All institutions need to be refreshed and reformed from time to time. But all this macho talk of whacking them will make Johnson no friends. There will be a time when he needs them. Sooner than he thinks. Really, really stupid and divisive briefings which have to be eventually disowned makes the Prime Minister look weak and ministers inept when they don’t know whether whatever loony tune of the day is or may be government policy.
Already, there are whisperings amongst ministers that the Cummings wings need to be clipped. There will be a time when the whisperings will turn into a clamour. So what will Johnson do? Easy. Whatever he thinks will be in his interest.