WHEN the hardened Whitehall warrior Sir Nicholas Macpherson compared the Prime Minister’s senior adviser (and de facto chief of staff) Dominic Cummings to Henry VIII’s formidable minister Thomas Cromwell, the former Treasury mandarin was thinking of Cromwell’s brutal end, beheaded when his master turned against him.
He wrote on Twitter: “My main advice to public servants, whether political or official, is to avoid self-promotion and believing your own myth. Otherwise it tends to end badly #thomascromwell.”
But the comparison could go deeper. Political leaders, whether Tudor monarchs or 21st-century prime ministers, have always surrounded themselves with courtier-fixers. The press are invariably fascinated by them — think Nick Timothy in the May era, Alastair Campbell under Tony Blair, or, for those with longer memories, Charles Powell or Bernard Donoghue, in the Thatcher and Wilson years.
They tend to be seen as secondary figures, consigliere rather than godfather, but, every now and then, they can divert the course of history . . . and Cromwell was probably the greatest example. As the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s majestic biography argues (Books, 28 September 2018), the qualities that the King valued in Cromwell — administrative brilliance and political ruthlessness — allowed him to dissolve the monasteries, bringing untold wealth to the Crown. Meanwhile, he quietly used his power to shape the English Reformation into a much more Evangelical form than Henry probably envisaged (Features, 2 August).
The point is that that fixers can have agendas that go beyond their masters’. Cromwell had allies, notably Archbishop Cranmer, and helped many of them to positions of power. Five hundred years on, Mr Cummings’s former patron, Michael Gove, now presides in the Cabinet Office, the engine room of Whitehall. Next door, Matthew Elliot, his colleague from Vote Leave, the campaign that Mr Cummings led to victory in the EU referendum, is a special adviser in the Treasury. A willingness to embrace a no-deal exit on 31 October has become the litmus test for ministerial office, and Vote Leave alumni throng Downing Street.
What we are seeing is the entrenchment of a new Brexit Establishment, which may embed at least some of the Cummings analysis and approach in the Government and a reshaped Conservative Party, even if his tenure in Downing Street is just a fraction of Cromwell’s decade at the epicentre of Tudor power.
Any reading of Mr Cummings’s extensive blogging reveals his contempt for conventional politics, and those “courtier-fixers” who live by its methods — one essay on them is entitled “The Hollow Men”. In his polemics, they are experts without expertise, locked into hopelessly inadequate institutions, endlessly repeating the same mistakes with undented confidence.
He believes that there are enormous gains to be reaped by a State that masters a “systems approach to delivery, where public policy is informed by big data and delivered by high functioning teams of super-smart visionaries”.
And, while delivering Brexit will of itself be a gigantic undertaking, he wants it to be a mere overture to a transformative era — his real reformation, you might say — in which a genuinely competent government can solve the problems facing a fragile civilisation. Blimey.
The word ambitious hardly begins to capture the sweep of Mr Cummings’s vision. He may have been hired to steer the Johnson government safely out of the political quagmire around Brexit, just as Cromwell provided answers to Henry VIII’s marital entanglements — but, for him, Brexit is just the beginning.
Mark D’Arcy is the Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.
Paul Vallely is away.