t’s stopped raining, at least in one part of the country: Whitehall. Political weather watchers saw the latest sign of less stormy times in a quiet U-turn by the Prime Minister last week. The plan had been to make David Frost, the man who negotiated the Brexit deal, his new national security adviser. I’ve never met this David Frost, but I have developed a sneaking admiration for him from afar. Amid the circus, he has just got on with his job of getting us out of the EU in an orderly, legal way. Getting his fellow Brexiteers to accept that involved tariffs on British manufacturers and discarding the fishermen was not an easy sell. It’s good news he remains in post as Brexit fixer. If anyone can sort the protectionist mess of the new customs arrangements, it will be the Great Frost (as Boris Johnson likes to call him).
Lord Frost (as he likes to call himself) was not, however, qualified for the additional new role he was given late last year as the country’s chief adviser on national security. He had no deep experience of working with the intelligence agencies or the military. Last Friday, however, it was announced that the highly capable head of the Ministry of Defence, Stephen Lovegrove, would be taking up the role instead.
Why does any of this matter to anyone outside SW1? The answer is because we all depend on good government supported by a professional, independent civil service. It is our best bulwark against the corruption and abuse of power that was endemic in the British state before the 19th-century reforms that introduced it — and which we sadly see in too many other places in our world today. That’s not a view universally shared. The campaign for Brexit was prosecuted by two different armies who came together in an alliance of convenience. The first were those who had long-standing concerns about our membership of the EU, on grounds of sovereignty and bureaucracy and cost. Before the referendum, most would have called themselves Eurosceptics who wanted to be in the EU but not run by it; the vote in 2016 forced them to choose between in or out, and a large number chose out.
There was another far smaller group, however, for whom the EU was only a symbol of a much wider problem: we were governed, they argued, by “out-of-touch elites” in politics, in business, in the media, in the courts and in the civil service. These elites had “let the people down” and needed to be put to the sword. It was a British manifestation of what Trump represented in the United States. Never mind that these popular champions were themselves often privately educated and with arts degrees from Oxbridge, like the ruling class they attacked. Never mind that it was never clear what the failure was that they were railing against — or that it turns out that in a modern, complex society it’s not so easy to deliver rising real incomes, full employment and low crime while at the same time keeping the nation together and having harmonious relations with your neighbours.
Dominic Cummings was the latest adviser to turn up in Downing Street saying: “It’s either the British state or me.” He promised to end judicial activism, defund the BBC, teach the Army about technology and dispatch the House of Lords up north. In one Zoom meeting last June it was widely reported (although disputed) that he also said “a hard rain” was coming to Whitehall.
What is left of the promised deluge? Nothing. In different ways, the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron administrations all brought about important evolutionary improvements to the civil service. Apart from the handing of P45s to a few mandarins, Whitehall has survived the brief reign of terror unscathed. Meanwhile, the licence fee is staying put and the judges are secure. It turns out Cummings mistook his boss for a fellow traveller when he was only ever a temporary passenger of convenience.
There is one extraordinary administrative success of this government, however: Britain’s mass Covid vaccination programme. The right leadership was put in place by ministers, commercial skills were employed, red tape was swept aside and, today, the full weight of the state delivering half-a-million vaccinations a day. It is an incredible example of what our civil service can do. It’s no surprise, then, that Cummings and his pals were briefing hard against the vaccine taskforce and its leadership before they were shown the door. And it’s no coincidence that the vaccination programme is the outstanding achievement to date of the Johnson premiership.