Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings seems to know what he wants, even if it’s a bit different, says John McLellan
With all its talk of weirdos and misfits, the recruitment drive launched by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has proved brilliantly effective in catching attention, with one entry in his blog doing a job for which recruitment agencies would charge thousands.
His appeal for mathematicians, data scientists and economists amongst others was refreshing in its honesty, with his warning “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”, unlikely to feature in many job specifications. “I don’t want confident public school bluffers. I want people who are much brighter than me who can work in an extreme environment. If you play office politics, you will be discovered and immediately binned.”
Such a robust approach has already attracted criticism, predictably from the unions concerned about pay scales and hierarchies which is precisely what Mr Cummings is challenging, but it’s not just the different approach to recruitment but the whole way Number 10 operates which will be watched closely, breaking away from the Blair/Cameron system of politics by media control. “We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’,” he wrote.
At all levels of public or private corporate life, the desire to “control the message” has become a product in its own right, especially since the digital revolution and the fracturing of media industries. Government departments, councils, public sector organisations and political parties employ communications staff to regimental strength where once only a couple of people were needed.
Even so, when the brown stuff hits the ventilation system even those organisations with large standing media armies conclude that what they need is more expertise to help them find a way out the mire and in come the crisis and reputation management consultants. The problem, of course, is that calling on the crisis experts is the best way of letting the rest of the world that you’re in deep doo-doo.
It’s all a far cry from the days when the public affairs department wrote up the annual report, banged out the odd press release and the staff newsletter and glad-handed at sponsored events. The entire communications industry will be agog, a business which has exploded since the advent of New Labour in the 90s, although judging by the tone of Mr Cummings’ blog, the spirit of Alastair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker will live on.
None will be watching the unfolding Cummings project more closely than the Scottish Government, and his reading list of communications and marketing studies as likely to be devoured as voraciously in Holyrood as in Westminster.
Spin doctors will lap it all up, as much in a spirit of self-preservation, especially private consultants who will see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Most prominent in Scotland is Charlotte Street Partners with its unmatchable SNP connections: co-founded by ex-shadow business minister Andrew Wilson who recently chaired First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Sustainable Growth Commission, and senior partner Kevin Pringle, for many years Alex Salmond’s closest advisor.
When free advice is on offer it would be rude not to listen. Writing in last week’s Sunday Times, Mr Pringle observed that the best way for Unionists to challenge the SNP was for the Scottish parties to separate from their UK organisations.
“The Tories, Labour and Lib Dems… do a reasonable job of opposing the Scottish Government,” he conceded, but, “By not being controlled within Scotland in terms of politics as well as policy, it’s harder for them to function as potential parties of government in Scotland.”
Maybe this is true if voters think an essential function of a good Scottish administration is turning every issue into a public spat in which everything is Westminster’s fault, and also presumes that the two administrations are incapable of finding different solutions to specific issues when even just the evidence of devolution itself – or for that matter the maintenance of distinct Scottish intuitions for 300 years – suggests the opposite.
But more practically it ignores the very obvious flaw that the SNP would pounce on any party which split from London and continued to argue it was a bad idea for the rest of the country, as did the First Minister very recently. But never mind.
The same day as Mr Pringle’s article appeared, his colleague Mr Wilson helpfully took to Twitter with some communications advice for fellow Nationalists which said, “Every minute focus on winning new hearts and minds to independence as the big idea.”
Lest we forget…
Call halt on concert hall
Long before the election, the UK government recognised that allowing the Scottish Government to be the main, indeed only, conduit for delivering developments and improvements in Scotland left the SNP to cast Westminster’s role in Scotland in a relentlessly negative light.
The Theresa May resignation, the long leadership campaign, Brexit paralysis and the election prevented progress but with 16 months to go before the Holyrood election there is a sense of urgency to find meaningful ways to make an impact.
The City Deals are key, now every corner of the mainland is covered by them, but the problem is the long time-scale to deliver tangible results and the fact that the UK government is just one partner in complicated arrangements between the Scottish Government, councils, universities and private enterprises.
A good example is the £1.3 billion Edinburgh deal, into which the UK government is investing £300 million, and the UK government website leads with a picture of the Dunard Concert Hall which is now tangled in a judicial review because of Edinburgh Council’s handling of the planning application and by common consent will never happen.
If the Scotland Office needs a quick win in Edinburgh, calling a halt to this disaster before it costs the council any more money in legal fees would be a start.
From one public relations disaster to another, Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay will surely become a standard text; how to turn a drunken brawl into one of the world’s most successful celebrations and then into a reputational nightmare.
The failure to obtain planning permission for the Princes Street market – or official advice that a retrospective application would be fine – has set the tone and the events company Underbelly stands accused of systematic malfeasance when everything suggests it has consulted fully with the council.
For all the mumbo jumbo about the council “having a conversation” with the city about the future of tourism, with whom is the dialogue and how can activism be balanced with the thousands of local people who enjoy the attractions?
Edinburgh doesn’t speak with one voice and in its wisdom the city’s ruling coalition collapsed one organisation capable of finding answers. Without Marketing Edinburgh, the council is relying on the same people which got the City – and Underbelly– into this mess to get it out.
You won’t find a Dominic Cummings in Waverley Court. Quite the opposite.