Comment

At least Cummings realised that things need to change. Does Boris?

Complacency is now the biggest threat to a Conservative Government that will lose in 2024 if it fails to 'level up' the UK

Dominic Cummings
The PM's divisive adviser left Downing Street after bitter infighting

The champagne corks are still popping in Conservative circles at the ousting of “career psychopath” Dominic Cummings from the side of the Prime Minister, but perhaps jubilant MPs shouldn’t be too quick to toast his political demise. 

For sure, the Vote Leave guru could pick a fight in an empty room, never laid eyes on an institution without wanting to dynamite it, and seemed to delight – to use the famous phrase of Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary – in “unnecessarily pissing people off”. Let’s not even mention Barnard Castle.

But his unfortunate personality doesn’t mean that all of his ideas were bad. In fact, his departure now feels like a moment of danger for a Government facing a potentially graver threat: inertia.

Many Conservatives cheer that Cummings’ exit will put the party back in the business of conserving things again and see it take a more softly-softly approach. But that presupposes all was well to begin with. 

As a product of private school and Oxford, the ex-adviser may not be a natural tribune of the people; but he did at least have a bigger handle on the serious economic challenges facing the UK regions – motivating the 2016 Brexit vote –than Tory MPs sitting on safe seats in the shires. 

Last year in his blog, Cummings championed a paper by Richard Jones, then a professor at Sheffield University, as full of ideas "about how the new government could really change our economy for the better, making it more productive and fairer", boosting science and innovation and helping regions outside the South East.

In terms of "levelling up" – an agenda made all the more acute by Covid-19 – one of the biggest issues facing us is that London has the highest productivity in the UK, at 32pc above the national average in 2018. The capital and the South East, the only other region above the national average, account for 37pc of economic output.  

Jones, a Remainer and not a natural Cummings ally, points out in his paper the flaws in the UK’s narrow science base which sees just three areas – Oxford and Cambridge and their environs, and west London – account for 31pc of all research and development spending across the entire country.

Over the past 40 years. moreover, the UK has gone from being one of the most R&D intensive developed economies in the world to one of the worst performers. The Government has a notional target of increasing R&D spending to 2.4pc of GDP from the current 1.7pc by 2027, taking us back to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average. 

Jones points that far from the Government "crowding out" R&D investment from the private sector with public spending, the reverse is actually the case: against the Treasury orthodoxy, such spending falls in response to reduced investment spending from the taxpayer. 

Hence the urgent need for public investments in new research bases, which in turn will attract private investment and boost regional productivity in the process.

In some areas, the scientist argues, the investment can build on existing strengths; but in other poorer parts of the UK the Government can act as much more of a pump-prime to address failings such as the "scandalously low" 3pc of public R&D funding going into energy, considering the legally mandated 2050 goal for carbon neutrality. 

"There is no reason why this should not happen in the less well-performing regions of the country," he writes. Those places with a combination of low public and private spending on R&D – Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire & Humber, and the North East – should be first in line. 

This regional focus is shared by public figures such as the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane, whom Cummings is rumoured to have pushed for Threadneedle Street's top job a year ago.

In Haldane’s second role, chairing the UK’s industrial strategy council, he noted earlier this year that London, the South East and Scotland were also landing 50pc of all foreign direct investment in R&D, and pointed out that the "institutions and targets of UK regional policy have been in constant flux since at least the late 1990s", undermining performance. 

Letting this moment for a targeted regional strategy drift now would be a travesty. So too would be a retreat from the Government's ambitions to reform a planning system not fit for purpose, another Cummings project which needs to be seen through to its conclusion, not fudged and kicked into the long grass.

Those shire Tories may well be fixated by "mutant algorithms", but taking the politics out of planning and allowing a zonal system to unlock building, remove economic inefficiencies and tackle generational inequality is long overdue. It would show at least some intent to live up to changes billed as the most radical since the Second World War only months ago. Who is going to be driving this through now?

The former adviser's political enemies decry a heavily interventionist approach and dismiss his preoccupations as attempting to turn the country into a tech start-up. But his ideas, which also included cutting tax for the lower paid, probably hold more appeal to the left-behind "red wall" voters who turned blue in 2019 than the wing of the party that simply wants the government to cut taxes, chop regulations and get the hell out of the way.

Pump priming R&D also looks like money well spent in the longer term, if ministers are willing to accept returns that might not turn up on an electoral timetable. 

Cummings once described politics as a "story of repeated administrative failure" but his personal hamartia appears to have been a total unwillingness to engage the state's machinery to achieve his goals (because they were part of the problem) and a lack of managerial skills to get things done and take people with him. A centralising instinct also seems at odds with the devolution genuine "levelling up" in the regions will need.

But amid all the back-slapping going on among the anti-Dom faction in 10 Downing Street the worst thing that Boris Johnson could do now is retreat into the comfort zone. By ducking the hard decisions, without a bold strategy to effect real change, the "red wall" seats will be lost, the Tories will retreat into the South East, and in 2024 Sir Keir Starmer takes office. He'll be propped up with SNP support in return for a referendum on the Union, which the Nats will probably win.

In the meantime, the UK settles into a pattern of lengthily negotiated not-quite-so-good trade deals and ennui takes hold. This is a historic moment for the country and it needs drive. If we're not going to get to grips with UK problems decades in the making, if we're not going to do anything differently, what was the point of Brexit at all?