One of the criticisms frequently levelled at Number 10’s de facto chief of staff Dominic Cummings is that he has no ideology or long-term vision. Once Brexit is done, it is argued, he will disappear in a puff of smoke and leave Britain to stew in whatever mess he leaves behind.
Beyond leaving the EU, Cummings hasn’t shown much interest in policymaking for its own sake: on the economy, health, defence and security, his personal views are a mystery.
In place of opinions, Cummings has focus groups. And his obsession with them is considered in political circles to be unhealthy.
Normal politicians decide policies they believe would work for the country, and then try to sell them to the people. Cummings – it seems – does it the other way around: he pulls together groups of unsuspecting citizens, and then introduces the policies they like to the politicians.
In the Channel 4 drama about the Brexit referendum The Uncivil War, Cummings was shown loitering at the back of stuffy little rooms, making notes while fights broke out around him. At best it looked cynical – at worst, sinister.
The policies announced this week by home secretary Priti Patel and justice secretary Robert Buckland look suspiciously like they were lifted straight out of one of these focus groups.
Poll after poll proves that the public are more worried than ever about violent crime, so both Patel’s plan to get the police to concentrate on “crushing county lines” (a term for when criminal gangs expand their drugs operations) and Buckland’s proposal to give longer sentences to violent criminals will almost certainly be lapped up enthusiastically.
But those policies aren’t just popular, they’re also sensible. From parents worried about their children being groomed by gangs to citizens anxious about the rise in knife crime, people deserve to have their concerns taken seriously by those they have elected.
Direct democracy is often criticised – and with good reason given the practical and ethical issues with mob rule. But Cummings’ style of politics simply means that elected politicians are absorbing the public’s hopes and fears. Ideology is all very well, but sometimes a healthy dose of pragmatism is useful too.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. While focus-group pragmatism trumps blind ideology, it needs to be underpinned by evidence. And the danger of relying too heavily on focus groups is that less glamorous but very important policies get kicked into the long grass.
There’s plenty of evidence, for instance, that a total reconfiguration of NHS computer systems would do wonders for the efficiency of the health service, but who, when asked to choose between a pay rise for nurses and some expensive software, would choose the latter?
Politicians with a long-term vision and expert advice at their disposal are sometimes better placed than the public to make the sort of impossible trade-offs and decisions necessary to run a country efficiently.
As Boris Johnson’s conference speech proved, being popular is incredibly important to this Prime Minister. Instead of technical details on his proposed alternative arrangements for the Irish border (which many of us were expecting in the speech itself), we heard risque jokes about the speaker of the House of Commons eating kangaroo testicles.
The jokes are harmless, and if courting popularity means investing in the police, it’s no bad thing that this government is so keen on it. But to be an effective Prime Minister, Boris will also have to be prepared to sometimes sacrifice popularity for the sake of the future, to look at the evidence and to put both ideology and approval to one side. If his senior aide is only prepared to engage in focus-group politics, getting that balance right might be tricky.
However, for now there is nothing wrong with an adviser who is willing to tear himself away from abstract philosophy and listen to what people in this country actually want.
Main image credit: REUTERS/Simon Dawson