Richard North, 26/05/2020  
 


Cummings is a very privileged man. He has a father who just happens to own a spare house on a secluded farm into which he and his family could move at the drop of a hat.

But, if the media had really wanted to nail Johnson's chief advisor, all they had to do was ask him what he would have done if his dad's house hadn't been instantly available, from which his family could secure child care. Clearly, other people have managed situations similar to that confronted by Cummings, without the luxury of an alternative home.

When, as he would have to have done, Cummings had come up with other options which (perforce) would not have involved driving 260 miles to a vacant house, that would have demonstrated that his chosen path was not his only possible option.

On that basis, he could not then have claimed he had a "reasonable excuse" driving to Durham with his wife and child, by virtue of his need to access child care (Regulation 6 (2)(i)(I)), it would have been only his preferred option, notwithstanding that no childcare seems to have been sought.

That said, this affair has also shown up far greater fault lines in Britain's system of government than the matter of Cummings's journey north. In the greater scheme of things - the fact that Dominic Cummings, a special advisor, delivered a press conference from the garden of No 10 Downing Street is far more importatnt. This is more than unprecedented.

In this respect, Cummings was not only in breach of the code of conduct for special advisors, he was being treated as a cabinet minister, afforded the full resources of the state for the purpose of explaining himself to the public. That is an affront to the constitution of the United Kingdom.

But the fact that Cummings is even a special advisor relies on a political and constitutional innovation going back only to 1964 when Harold Wilson's first Labour government appointed party supporters to provide political advice to ministers. Since then, the special advisor (SpAd) system has been adopted by all governments.

However, in days gone by (and particularly before 1950, for reasons I will explain shortly), prime ministers who needed close advisors who – like Cummings – had executive roles, did have mechanisms for bringing these people into government.

Prior to 1950, when they were abolished, one useful mechanism was the university constituency. Some of these, effectively, were safe seats in the gift of prime ministers, who could insert persons of their choice in the confident expectation that an obedient electorate would return them to parliament.

An example of this was Sir John Anderson, a brilliant civil servant who in 1938 was elected to parliament in a by-election as a non-party supporter of the national government.

He had been proposed by the national government headed by Neville Chamberlain and, by October of that year had been appointed to his cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. In that capacity, he was put in charge of air raid preparations and initiated the development of the famous air-raid shelter named after him.

Had Cummings back in the 1930s been required to take the senior role in government that he occupies now, it is arguable that he would have followed the route taken by Anderson. He would have become an MP via one of the prime minister's grace and favour seats, and shortly thereafter he would have been made a minister.

After 1950, prime ministers who wanted to bring a confidante into government would have to choose the safe seat route but this – and especially after the shock result in Newbury in 1993 - has been considered increasingly insecure. Voters might reject what they see as political carpetbaggers.

In any event, the situation even back in Sir John Anderson's day was never really satisfactory. On the one hand, one cannot deny the right of a prime minister to appoint those people he feels he needs to run his government (although the Labour Party doesn't allow this), but there must be due process and accountability.

When prime ministers have to rely on the artefact of what amounts to a rigged election, the system is being abused. The purpose of elections is to vote for MPs who will represent their constituents in parliament – not to provide prime ministers with a mechanism for creating new ministers.

If we are to address this issue, we need to stop messing about. As set out in The Harrogate Agenda, we must separate the processes of appointing our MPs and ministers, including prime ministers. And that means separation of powers.

In the first instance, then, we need a directly elected prime minister – not a president, but a prime minister. The moment one talks about this, there will always be someone who pops out of the woodwork saying "we don't want an elected president".

Here, one can only agree. We already have a head of state – the monarch. That doesn't change. Directly electing prime ministers doesn't miraculously turn them into presidents. If you directly elect a prime minister, you end up with an elected prime minister.

Direct election would correct a manifest unfairness in our current arrangements. When I first wrote about the Harrogate Agenda, I noted that prime minister David Cameron had gained office by virtue of 33,973 votes in the 2010 general election.

All those votes had been cast in the constituency of Witney, which boasted 78,220 electors. The rest of the nation was not allowed to vote for the man. He may have been elected as an MP, but he was not elected as prime minister through a general franchise.

As to Johnson, out of 70,369 electors in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, only 25,351 voted for him – hardly a ringing endorsement of the man, even as an MP. But, as with Cameron and every other prime minister before him, no one actually voted for Johnson as a prime minister. In this country, we have unelected prime ministers – unelected, that is, by universal franchise.

When it comes to ministers, these are not elected either. They are appointed by the prime minister from both houses of parliament. By tradition, Secretaries of State should be MPs so that they can address the Commons.

But we do not see parliament's function as being to provide a distressingly shallow gene pool from which ministers can be recruited. One antidote to the contempt with which politicians are regarded is for parliament to do its job as the protector of the people, rather than the supporter of governments and the provider of its management personnel.

Its main tasks should be preparing legislation for public approval, the scrutiny of government, and then the representation of the people to government. For that to happen, the institution has to attract the right people and be properly structured. As long as its main function is to provide ambitious politicians with the means to enter government, it can never properly perform its proper roles.

Thus we would argue for a system close to that adopted by the United States. Our directly elected prime ministers should be able to select their own ministers, who then should be ratified by parliament before they can take up their appointments. MPs would not be allowed to be ministers and any MPs appointed as ministers would have to resign their memberships.

In the case of breach of duty or alleged malpractice, such as the situation in which Cummings has placed himself, then it would be parliament which should conduct inquiries and decide whether transgressors keep their posts.

With Cummings though, there could be another route into office. In the US system, there is a formal office of White House Chief of Staff. If Cummings is the equivalent for Downing Street, then the role should be formally recognised and its scope properly defined. As it stands, in the British system of government, there is no such post as chief of staff to the prime minister.

Such a role, though, would fit much better into a system where we have a directly elected prime minister, who appoints his own staff – with suitable checks and balances. That way, the prime minister should become responsible to parliament for their conduct, and then to the electorate.

In that scenario, we would not have dominating the bank holiday news in the middle of a crisis, the self-indulgent spectacle of a prime ministerial advisor holding forth to the media on the Downing Street lawn.

To that extent, Cummings has done us a favour in illustrating quite how rotten this particular part of the British system of government has become. But whether anyone will learn the lesson from it is anyone's guess.






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