[Last updates, tiny, 18/9/23]
Below are answers to many frequently asked questions.
Over the next few years there will be a lot of argument over:
why did Britain vote for Brexit
has it been a success or failure; do we measure this by mainstream Westminster perspectives, public opinion, Tory MP perspectives, Vote Leave’s perspective, HMT/mainstream economics etc
is the Eurozone fixing its problems and becoming more attractive or sinking further behind America/China in the important metrics (e.g ability to manufacture GPUs, build an ecosystem for multimodal LLMs)
is ‘distrust in our institutions’ a big problem, maybe the biggest (SW1 conventional wisdom) or is our real problem that there’s too much trust in our institutions by political-academic-media Insiders (I’d say my pre-2016 view is vindicated by 2016-22 but clearly there is extreme resistance to this conclusion)
connected to the point above — to what extent is the shift in Insider opinion from ‘Westminster basically works’ (2015) to ‘Westminster is broken’ (2023) because a) Insiders are catching up with decades of rot they didn’t want to see (so in at least one way Brexit is working as intended in stripping Insider illusions) or b) most of them have simply shifted from one delusion ‘Westminster basically works’ to another delusion ‘it was working but Brexit broke it’
what did we (a network of advisers and officials, not Boris) really try to do in 2019-20 and why, why did things crack up with Boris/VL, how much of it succeeded/failed, was the project to remake government and the Tory Party doomed, what does this mean for the future direction of Tories/Labour
why did the Tories generally fail so badly in general 2010-24, how constrained was Sunak by the overall deadweight of his party, how much by the Boris-Truss blowup, how much by his own bad decisions
why did the Conservatives win in 2019: how much was the core strategy, how much was Boris v Corbyn, how much was Labour strategic errors over Brexit and the campaign, how much a continuation of historical dynamics already visible in 2016 (particularly educational polarisation, also important in US, which was so underrated that many pollsters did not weight by education in 2016)
was the electoral coalition formed between the referendum victory and the 2019 victory something that — with the plan for government, changing the Tory Party, and building a new communication machine — could have been built on if we could have got Boris to do roughly what we wanted 2020-24 (as I think), and is it something a revived/replaced Tory Party should aim for again, or was it unnatural, an aberration, a dead end (as high status pundit world is now telling SW1)
is it possible to win elections while really trying to reverse longterm trends on productivity, Whitehall failure, R&D, education corruption, procurement disasters etc (me), or is it an illusion to think that a radically different approach is possible and the only future for British party politics is ever more regulation and tax (branded ‘fiscal responsibility’, ‘to save the planet’ etc) plus the old economic model (rely on the City, horrific housing market, HMT pushing infrastructure to south east etc) plus No10 as media entertainment service plus elections pretending to be about significant differences between elites which are actually trivial (e.g 2010, 2015)
could the Tories be transformed into a party that is simultaneously a) more Hayekian (lower tax, lower regulation, pro-competition, on the side of startups against incumbents using political power to entrench themselves, more market forces to solve many public service failures), b) much more aggressive in (re)building state capacity and more interventionist / less laissez faire in some areas (e.g investing for strategic advantage in niches of science and technology, much more aggressively blocking Chinese legal/illegal acquisition of technology), c) trusted with healthcare, schools etc, d) much tougher and more serious than the Tories on crime/security/defence so increasingly seen as ‘extreme’ in SW1 (but seen as ‘obviously sensible’ by relevant voters) — or is conventional wisdom right that this is ‘incoherent’ (as they described VL’s message in 2016) and impossible and the only future for the Tories is something like Cameron, i.e a light touch on the brake from New Labour (I’d describe this as ‘keeping up appearances among Insiders in London as the country keeps disintegrating’)
is there a huge opportunity for a party that focuses on a) real problems, b) how power really works and c) the voters — rather than the media — or are the MPs right to focus almost exclusively on the media (I’d argue the referendum and 2019 showed MPs don’t understand communication therefore, to the extent they think about this rigorously rather than just respond to their environment, wrongly think they have no choice)
is it better to try to revive the Tories or replace them
what’s the interaction between A) the quality of the old parties, the quality of the old Whitehall bureaucracies, the quality of the old media, and B) why we can’t reverse decline, improve productivity etc — to what extent are we really talking about the need to retire a subset of our elite and replace it with a subset of the entrepreneurial elite that can build, and how practical is this given politics and the bureaucracies actively drive away those who can build (in London and DC)
what do the trajectory of the Democrats and GOP in the 2024 cycle imply for whether America sees a lot more political violence and, even, can hold together as a country (it’s common to hear US elites discuss privately ‘civil war within 10-20 years’); what are the implications for the UK, future of NATO; should we be more worried by people like Steve Bannon or that so many senior officials in US intelligence agencies told so many lies to the mainstream media to help Biden beat Trump
is our real problem ‘a loss of trust in mainstream media like the New York Times which play a vital role in democracy’ (mainstream Insider view) or is this mainstream media itself the biggest source of lies and fake news and thereby undermining public confidence in democracy
should ‘conservatives’ (i.e liberals with minor reservations about the leading edge of the left) try to capture centralised institutions like the Department for Education and ‘reform’ them (mainstream view) or focus on building a full stack alternative decentralised system outside the bureaucracy’s control (Marc Andreessen’s view); should politicians try the normal path of ‘reform centralised institution X’ (say the Pentagon/MOD) or instead ‘create a startup to do some of what’s needed 10X faster and better, cannibalise X then quietly close X’
how will politicians cope as advanced technology (e.g multimodal LLMs. text, video etc) force themselves into political debate, given they’re mostly bad at using TV; how will political entrepreneurs use new tools to break the power of the old parties/media, with echoes of how radio, cinema and TV changed politics
will Tories and Labour face the disaster of them ignoring a) China’s aggressive infiltration of critical infrastructure, b) the rot and corruption of the MOD and much critical infrastructure around WMD, c) the implications of some new technologies for national security and prosperity (even survival), or will they carry on as usual with ‘world leading’ rhetoric as capabilities hollow out
should we be strengthening confidence in the UN, EU, World Bank, IMF, WHO etc (mainstream Insider view) or are they actually blocking what we need to build for global cooperation and themselves huge dangers; is ‘the rules based international order’ a great asset or just another hypocritical, rotten Insider delusion; if it’s doomed what should we try to replace it with
is it possible to reverse the disintegration we see everywhere in politics before we hit crunches like 1914/1930s or will history follow its normal path — slow rot, elite collective blindness, rare prophets ignored or ridiculed, fast crisis, sudden collapse…
I had a view of:
crucial problems, globally and UK;
a plan for government — e.g how to tackle the stagnation in productivity, making strategic advantage in parts of science and technology central to a PM’s job/focus and post-Brexit national strategy, fixing the MOD horrorshow;
a plan for how to do the plan given most of Whitehall can‘t / doesn’t want to change much, including changing the core institutions of No10 and the Cabinet Office, changing civil service personnel and HR;
a political strategy to develop the coalition that emerged 2016-19, turn the Tory Party into something very different, and to change enough of the people to make it stick — i.e ally a large section of voters with a subset of the entrepreneurial elite who can build brought in to replace a chunk of the old ruling elite;
a political machine to drive it.
The below Q&A explains some of what I thought/think and what really happened in No10. If we’re going to try to replace the Tories, there needs to be a much clearer picture of what actually happened over the past few years, what worked, what didn’t, why, and people outside the Insider-Westminster-world have to develop a view on how accurate that world’s conventional wisdom is on many crucial questions. A lot about bureaucracies below applies to the next President, e.g do you try to ‘reform’ the Pentagon or create new entities to do its work. And I get asked the same questions a lot so it’s useful to put answers in one place.
You will have got a very weird impression if you relied on the political media since 2015.
Rick Rubin, cofounder of Def Jam records, said recently that WWE is real and it’s mainstream political news that’s fake. This will sound nonsensical, or ‘a sign of the terrible lack of confidence in our precious institutions’, if you’re a political Insider or trust political Insiders and the New York Times. If you realise just how much political news really is invented (with lower production values than WWE) and how much of supposedly ‘real’ political action is fake responses to fake news, it makes sense.
One of the most interesting things about the last decade is the way a subset of the entrepreneurial elite has quietly split away from the political elite in basic attitudes towards mainstream political news. In 2015 the two were much more closely aligned, with huge overlap around what you could loosely think of as Blair-Clinton-Obama, and the entrepreneurs focused mainly on business. I failed to persuade them that political Insiders were mostly living in a fake world.
Now I have extremely divergent experiences talking to these groups. The entrepreneurs share political news and discuss how surreal it is that mainstream political figures treat obvious fakes as real, then respond to the fakes (they think of as real) with more fakes, then deplore the public for not trusting their fakes as real and exhort us all to trust the mainstream (them) again. Often such entrepreneurs use private time with political Insiders to try to figure out how much of the fake the Insiders really believe is real and are realising — almost all of it.
The political Insiders talk to me as if they believe their fakes are real and I should start believing them and stop telling people it’s fake. The idea they’re more fake than WWE is incomprehensible, gratuitously insulting, deranged. If you want a shortcut to see these diverging viewpoints, follow Marc Andreessen (team entrepreneur) and people like George Osborne, Starmer or Biden (team ‘trust us’).
The people who most trust mainstream political news and analysis are political Insiders whose politics are far from the median voter and spend huge amounts of their time trying to figure out why it’s so hard for them to communicate effectively, why almost nothing they say is heard and the little that’s heard is not believed. They’d communicate more effectively if they learned from WWE.
The public believes less and less of what they’re told by the mainstream media and politicians and this will surely accelerate given how they’ll be bombarded with ‘fakes’ that seem more ‘real’ than the ‘real/official news’. Insiders are sure to panic further and accelerate the forces they dread. Given their responses to Brexit, Trump, covid and Ukraine, how likely is it Insiders will reflect on how it’s them who are the biggest suckers for ‘fake news’ and ‘information bubbles’?
Obviously lots of the questions/answers below are interrelated.
Please suggest other Qs in the comments.
If you think what I’ve said is wrong, particularly if you were there 2019-20, please leave a comment or get in touch.
Big picture: background to Brexit, the ‘unrecognised simplicities’ of high performance, do people learn from them, why is learning so hard
Covid: procurement case study for regime failure and determination not to face failure; the inquiry
Ukraine / Russia / China
No10: some Golden Rules for how politics really works, why I decided to go to No10 July 2019, why a Cabinet of duffers, what happened with Saj / Sunak, how I actually spent my time in No10, why a British ARPA, what was the real plan behind announced changes to government communications, why threaten ‘hard rain’ (didn’t), my role in 2019 election, Seldon’s junk book, how hard is to remove regulations…
Boris/Carrie: what went wrong with Boris/Vote Leave, why etc; why did he get pushed out
What are the most important reasons why you did Brexit, what you tried to do in No10, what you think Britain/America should be doing now?
I’ve made the same basic points about the big picture in politics before the referendum and before No10: cf. my 2013 essay, 2014 blog The Hollow Men, 2017 blog on ‘expertise and a quadrillion dollar business’ re pandemics and nuclear weapons, ‘systems management’ and Apollo vs Whitehall, a 2019 blog on the failure of UK crisis management in the next big crisis and what should be built.
The world is ‘undersized and underorganised’ (von Neumann) because of a collision between four forces:
1) Our technological civilisation is inherently fragile and vulnerable to shocks such as war, regime collapse.
2) The knowledge it generates is inherently dangerous.
3) Our evolved instincts predispose us to aggression and misunderstanding.
4) There is a profound and growing mismatch between a) the quality of i) individuals in crucial roles and their understanding of both politics and technology and ii) ‘mission critical’ institutions which are similar to those that failed so spectacularly in summer 1914 yet face b) crises moving at least ~103 times faster (e.g minutes to decide nuclear strikes) and involving ~106 times more destructive power able to kill ~1010 people.
Carl Sagan called this mismatch ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power’.
Another way of thinking about this is we have a combination of:
21st Century markets plus science plus technologies: they disrupt all traditions and regimes and enable ever fewer people to wreak ever more destruction faster and faster, making the scale and speed of crises bigger and harder to cope with.
20th Century state bureaucracies: centralised, slow, anti-adaptive, close to unreformable in any significant way by anybody other than near-revolutionaries (e.g the UK Cabinet Office in charge of critical state functions).
19th Century crisis management consisting of very similarly educated men sitting around tables like the Cabinet table in 1914 with Asquith scribbling notes to his girlfriend. I wrote in 2019 that the next crisis would see similar scenes around that table and similar failure. Less than a year later I was sitting at that exact table with a growing feeling of doom as I watched Boris texting his girlfriend as the worst crisis since 1945 overwhelmed core institutions.
Pre-19th Century (pre-Darwinian and even pre-Newtonian) education and training for political leaders and officials. Political and intellectual elites do not have good ideas about how to govern and have practically no understanding of things they have to make critical decisions about (e.g viruses, exponential growth, the scaling hypothesis of machine learning). 200 or 2,000 years ago political leaders were often very familiar with, and even expert in, critical technologies. Practically nobody near the apex of power now in the West is even familiar with critical technologies.
Stone Age instincts drive violence, cruelty and collectivism when we’re under pressure and inevitably operating with low fidelity causal models of politics.
On one hand, the information-discovery process of competitive markets plus science generate more knowledge, more wealth, greater productivity, and creative destruction as companies grow and die, knowledge is abstracted and compressed, startups drive progress and so on.
On the other hand, crises seem to follow a power law in which the scale of destruction and possible destruction gets bigger and bigger. The wealth, knowledge and power that science and markets generated allowed the Anglo-American world to squeak through two world wars. Political and military leadership was often terrible but our error-correcting institutions worked better than Germany’s and (despite Germany’s frequent tactical and operational superiority) we made fewer huge blunders than Hitler (cf. my recent blog on Alanbrooke and the Chiefs of Staff Committee in WWII). It’s hard to see how we keep getting lucky. We fluked our way through multiple nuclear crises (e.g partly because JFK had read about 1914 a few months before the Cuban missile crisis and ignored military advice).
The ‘combustible mixture’ caught up with us on Iraq and covid. It may catch up with us on Ukraine/Russia. Eventually it will catch up with us on WMD, biological engineering, AI etc — it’s just a question of time. A ~1% chance per year is ~100% long-term. The only way out, if there is one at all which there may well not be, is a mix of a) profound changes to political institutions embedding the ‘unrecognised simplicities’ of high performance and b) new forms of international cooperation. (Further, humanity’s survival longterm in the teeth of inevitable natural phenomena (supernovas, asteroids etc) also requires a jump to a different form of technological civilisation than the hybrid ancient and modern civilisation we now have.)
For example, I said a few years ago that I wanted Britain to advocate and start practical work with similarly minded players (e.g Bezos, Elon) on a permanent manned lunar base with whites, Chinese, Russians, Indians, blacks, Japanese etc all living up there building long discussed space infrastructure, a focus for humanity to think of us against the universe instead of us against each other. (See below.)
Regarding the UK: Brexit as ‘icebreaker of the revolution’
There was a cross-party consensus spanning Cameron-Blair supporters and most of the media behind a set of foundations for British politics which I thought was largely deluded and doomed to be washed away by the forces sketched above:
rely on the EU and Single Market, ‘the rules based international order’ and ‘the special relationship’ as foundations of national strategy;
rely on the City and foreign capital coming to London and buying its services thereby funding public services for the rest of the country and enabling MPs to ignore the astonishing lack of productivity outside a few parts of the south (including loads of dodgy loot from the world’s mobile oligarchs that corrupted policy, party funding, the legal profession etc);
a nightmare property market allowing some politically weighty groups to cash in and encouraging a cycle of NIMBYism in Parliament and media;
some world class research mainly in the south east with pharma, biosciences etc masking the decay of R&D, the relative decline of universities, all sorts of real capabilities remorselessly weakened, Treasury budgets relentlessly vandalising long term building, and no real interest in the interaction of a) basic science research funding (eg Bell Labs or ARPA), b) the startup ecosystem, and c) government (particularly military/intelligence) priorities and funding — the ecosystem that lies behind huge advantages of America over Europe in advanced technology with all this implies;
massive immigration and the claim ‘this is actually good for public services because they pay taxes’ (this helped us win the referendum as people saw the reality of both parties failing to build infrastructure and public services across the country, hence immigration, like most things, disproportionately helping the rich);
all parties focus on the professional management class, not entrepreneurs who come up with new ideas, and this systematically biases government to be anti-entrepreneur;
the combination of the Human Rights Act/ECHR membership plus the Equalities Act plus the way judicial review works plus civil service culture and incentives means that vast areas of policy and public administration operate in a fog of policy/management/legal uncertainty that guarantees delays, perverse consequences, and waste — even worse, almost all the craziness and costs are totally hidden from MPs and the media, and the dynamics mean left to itself it gets worse and worse every year even if people are trying to improve it;
rhetoric and gimmicks about ‘deregulation’; reality ‘relentlessly more regulation’;
rhetoric: ‘we want a low tax economy’; reality higher taxes;
rhetoric: ‘we will reform government and cut waste’; reality ‘reform means give the broken things more power and money, waste grows everywhere, nobody actually cares or cares about how Whitehall works’ (a result being extremely misguided assumptions about what ‘serious’ politicians can credibly claim about future taxes);
rhetoric: ‘world leading’; reality: capabilities hollowed out everywhere from science throughout the deep state including the nuclear enterprise;
rhetoric: ‘Rolls Royce civil service’; reality ‘Clousseau car civil service’ with great younger people pushed out and the worst promoted, another vicious circle…
My experience of Westminster 1998-2015 led me to think:
The political parties are appalling. The Tory Party is rotten. Not only do they not have an actual plan, they aren’t interested in what’s important, they aren’t even pretending to have an actual plan, they just want to babble to hacks all day and they’re rubbish even at that.
Whitehall is systemically dysfunctional and there’s little chance of improvement given, for example, the Cabinet Secretary is so deluded as to say things like ‘we’ve nothing to learn from the private sector’ on management.
This combination of political and official dysfunction contributes to the Big Picture problems above.
It also means we have no serious plans to deal with our problems on productivity, public services, science and technology etc, and Whitehall couldn’t execute even if a No10 got serious.
The political media is a farce that makes serious debate on anything impossible but it’s all the MPs ever focus on. This is a disaster and an opportunity.
Brexit could be an ‘icebreaker of the revolution’. It will be good in its own terms. And it will force political Insiders into a deeply unpleasant confrontation with reality that is sure to generate change from the MPs, the parties, Whitehall and the media. We could bring together: better selection of people for government, better education/training, and better core institutions (with incentives to get great people aimed at the most important problems) at the apex of state power. There is huge potential in the intersection of ‘the unrecognised simplicities’ of high performance management plus ‘systems’ thinking plus the potential of new technologies/tools plus deploying what really works in communication. No10 can only work seriously on profound problems if it can partly escape the tyranny of permanent chaos that has gripped it for decades and means nothing much can change without the PMs attention which is fractured by many constantly changing demands. The fracturing of elite attention and inability to focus is a cycle that must be broken. It needs a system that can improve crisis management and drive priorities regardless of whether the lighthouse of the PM’s attention is on crisis management. And the icebreaker will force the creation of new forms of international cooperation desperately needed to grapple with the Big Picture problems above — at the very least there will have to be ways for Britain to discuss security and other international issues outside the EU and over time these might grow into something valuable.
A combination of actual plan for government, a plan to deliver it, a political strategy and a political machine is a sort of ‘systems politics’, a systems approach applied to governing and politics. While Westminster’s attention spins, lighthouse-like, to shine on the latest specific debacle in the news, the important dynamics are more fundamental, more abstract and never discussed.
Back in 2015-16 my view of Westminster as fundamentally broken was a very fringe view. People would read my blog The Hollow Men about the Department for Education 2010-14 and tell me ‘you must be exaggerating’. Without exception those who read it and then get involved in government later say things like: ‘Before I came in I thought it must be an exaggeration but after a few weeks I realised it’s an understatement.’ (I reply: that’s what everyone says, but nobody ever says it publicly and you won’t either. And they laugh and they never do.) Long time officials would say, ‘those outside [actual power] think it’s an exaggeration but obviously you couldn’t tell the whole truth about the madness’.
After the referendum
A government led by two Remainers (May/Hammond), supported by the mainstream of the Tories and cheered by the ERG and the Tory newspapers, embarked on a disastrous negotiation strategy, ignoring everything Vote Leave had said about how to do it.
This drove the government, the Tories and the country into the biggest constitutional crisis for at least a century.
Having been confronted with unpleasant reality, as I wanted, Westminster contrived to blame Brexit / Vote Leave.
I saw the crisis as ‘caused by Westminster’s long-term rot colliding with reality’ — that we won proved the rot and Westminster’s subsequent collapse hammered it home.
Some of the VL team very reluctantly did a deal with Boris in summer 2019 to save him/the Tories in return for some commitments on Brexit and government priorities.
Westminster interpreted me/Vote Leave in government as ‘at war with everybody’. In fact, almost our only allies were in the civil service.
It is better described as a ‘war to change the Tory Party and Whitehall in alliance with some of Whitehall/public servants and some entrepreneurs against others in Whitehall plus the Tory MPs plus old media, with Boris changing sides at least three times’.
The media presented me as constantly talking to them and ‘campaigning’. I spent almost no time talking to the media and, in 2020, close to zero time on politics and zero on campaigning. I spent my time on the actual plan. This contributed to, but didn’t cause, the crackup in relations with Boris/Carrie (but if I’d focused more on the media this would have accelerated the crackup).
The Tory MPs saw VL leaving No10 as victory for them. Short term this was true. They could go back to normal, role playing in the SW1 simulation pretending to be players while officials and a handful of spads turned No10 back to Media Entertainment Service: everyone happy. They thought ‘let Boris be Boris!’ (as the Telegraph cheered), free of the appalling VL influence, would be a political triumph. But it doomed them because it meant the government had no actual plan, no political strategy, couldn’t get anything done, and just became a stage for the Boris/Carrie implosion.
Hence the Vote Leave perspective and the median MP/hack perspective have diverged further.
See ‘Why did you do Brexit’ below and ‘How did you spend your time in No10’ for more detail.
Why did Vote Leave win?
Three big forces made it possible.
1/ The immigration crisis building for years and all over TV 2014-16.
2/ The 2008 financial crisis making people desperate for change and undermining their confidence in ruling Insiders.
3/ The euro crisis a) undermined the long term story that ‘the EU is a success, we gain from being part of it’ and b) made people fear the costs of having to pay for the failure of the euro/EU project.
4/ The Remain campaign made critical errors. They had enormous advantages: e.g they wrote the question, the timing, the rules; they controlled almost every institution with power (CBI, unions, the City etc) including thousands of officials; huge influence over the state broadcaster. But they blew it: e.g their message, failure to answer VL’s message on £350M/NHS and Turkey, it could have killed VL and fought the referendum against a campaign run by assorted incompetents but didn’t. Remain optimised for Insiders/pundits which is normal: e.g Remain blew the last week of the campaign by being sucked into the emotions of richer people in London who trusted the mainstream news and strongly supported Remain, which disconnected them from the rest of the country.
5/ A) VL’s message was optimised for winning, not for keeping Insiders happy. This is unusual because it massively increases short term social friction for Insiders including those running the campaign. And it was high risk — the entire campaign was nearly destroyed because of this friction. It was a necessary risk because given Remain’s huge structural advantages we had to get the strategy/message bang on to have any chance. B) VL had ~10 exceptional people who would be competitive against any team in the world. C) In the last month we ‘hacked the medium’. The political media was 100X more interested in speculation about who would lead the Tory Party than important Leave/Remain issues (e.g the future of procurement) so we gave them a leadership story (what they wanted) with our message embedded in it (what we wanted), so even though hacks did not want to report our message (‘Turkey is joining’) they had to.
False: ‘Leave won because of the campaign.’ E.g. Without 15 years of out of control immigration, our message of ‘take back control’ would not have had enough traction. Campaigns can ride big waves but they almost never make them.
False: ‘Leave won because of a big force [e.g immigration], the campaign was irrelevant.’ If our message had had been what Tory MPs including Boris wanted — i.e ‘Global Britain’, ‘trade deals’, ‘deregulation’ — we’d have been crushed.
True: Leave won because 1) three big forces created conditions in which the contest could be made competitive, AND 2) Vote Leave exploited the situation (imperfectly but) effectively, AND 3) Cameron/Osborne made big mistakes. If either (2) or (3) had been different, it’s very likely Remain would have won. If Remain had been run by the core VL team with Leave run by Farage and the ERG, Leave would have been crushed in 2016.
I wrote a long account of the campaign here.
Who deserves most credit for Leave’s victory?
There wouldn’t have been a referendum without Farage pushing from 2010. The pressure provoked Cameron into his promise to hold a referendum. In 2014 Stuart Wheeler asked me to do some research on UKIP’s message. I agreed as I thought if UKIP improved their message it would increase the chances of leaving. The work showed interesting things like the organic support all over the country in ‘an Australian points system’ before this was taken up by the media. I very quietly met with Stuart and Farage and gave them the results. Farage took up ‘Australian points’ effectively 2014-15 and it was an important foundation for the referendum.
Farage was such a nightmare during the referendum many thought he and his gang didn’t want to win but I think actually he was too blinded by chimp politics to see straight. He was understandably fed up of being condescended to and sneered at by Tory MPs who did nothing and cared more about their own careers than progress. He understandably didn’t want to be told what to do by Bill Cash. For inexplicable reasons he got it into his head that my priority was making friends with Tory MPs and I would therefore not go after Cameron aggressively! (Yes, such weird total misconceptions can play a big role in politics.) People often don’t handle well things they think are bizarre and I thought this was so bizarre I didn’t have to worry about it (wrong). And he, like many, became totally fixated on the debates and being the person to debate Cameron. (An issue I also did not handle well.) He was also obsessed with the idea that we didn’t want to build a grassroots campaign, even though within months of creating our startup we had thousands more volunteers than UKIP which had existed for over 20 years.
As he said himself, rather oddly, when asked in a documentary what he’d have done if he’d won control of the official campaign: ‘I don’t know’.
So: no Farage, no referendum; Farage running referendum, certain defeat.
Without Gove I doubt Boris would have joined us. It was amazing how little pressure Cameron and Osborne put on Gove. I think Cameron could have forced Gove to agree ‘I’m voting Leave but won’t campaign’, VL would have collapsed in chaos, Remain would have won comfortably. Hubris and a lack of a killer instinct probably changed history.
MPs/MEPs were not involved in the management of the startup. Gove helped manage the MPs. We used a Potemkin committee structure to keep a large number of people ‘involved’ but quiet-ish while the actual campaign was run elsewhere. This nightmare took a huge amount of my time, was profoundly depressing and caused some MPs to hate me.
Although I got the credit for the success of the VL organisation the person most responsible was Victoria Woodcock who built and managed the startup with extraordinary skill and determination. She was a one-woman demonstration of the ‘unrecognised simplicities’. She would be one of our greatest ever Prime Ministers.
My role is overrated. It was most importantly:
Finding a crucial ~10 people, protecting them from craziness so they could focus on the campaign, and helping them work together to build everything else.
Saying many times ‘focus’, ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘simplify’, ‘faster, faster’.
Saying many times ‘focus on the public not Westminster’.
Saying many times ‘ignore that, stick to £350 million for the NHS, Turkey is joining, Take Back Control’.
Helping crucial people think through the hardest decisions in the right way.
Where did Take Back Control come from?
From listening to voters who said it over and over.
During the campaign to keep the pound (1999-9/11) the best core message we could find was ‘KEEP THE POUND, KEEP CONTROL’ so it was natural to look for ideas like this. (GET BREXIT DONE similarly came simply from listening to voters from early 2019 through the summer, not a creative agency.)
UKIP, the ERG and Boris wanted to use GLOBAL BRITAIN. It was always rubbish. I scuppered it in 2016 and the 2019 election but Boris always wanted to use it and (rightly) calculated it would get him points with the ERG. After the 2019 election, as with many things, I could no longer stop Boris following his instincts and it sadly has spread like a weed. It remains incomprehensible / irrelevant to normal voters and encourages delusions among Tories. (I also tried to stop Boris saying ‘special relationship’ but failed here too.)
The logo was stolen from Steve Jobs. We couldn’t afford to hire a top agency and they wouldn’t have worked with us anyway. So I thought about Jobs’ advice on simplicity and ‘the best artists steal’ (see above!) and did some google searches. Surely there’s something he did with manic determination I could steal? After he left Apple in the 1980s, for his new company he got one of the top designers in the world to do a logo. I looked at it and thought, ‘good enough for Steve good enough for us, we can put a hole in the top so it looks like a ballot box’. Total cost: almost nothing. I made a lot of decisions like this because the savings in time and money were far greater than the marginal improvements of spending more time and money on them (if this would even bring an improvement).
How effective was £350 million / NHS?
The Remain campaign’s pollster, Andrew Cooper, said it was ‘devastatingly effective’.
It was clear from summer 2015 it was incredibly effective.
We launched the whole campaign on this theme.
It was the best way to neutralise Remain’s economic campaign.
One of its strengths was it worked better than anything else with almost any demographic so it didn’t need any clever marketing / targeting.
It was deeply unpopular with Tory MPs and Farage.
Remain’s £4,300 per household figure did not work.
What slogan should Remain have used?
Probably SAFETY IN NUMBERS.
Like TAKE BACK CONTROL normal people used it naturally when thinking about the issue. I’m confident it would have been much better than their actual slogan.
I didn’t mention this before 2020 in case there was another referendum.
Why did you campaign for Leave?
The EU is incompatible with Britain’s more advanced political culture… [E]rror correction is the basic issue, and I can’t foresee the EU improving much in this respect… [P]reserving the institutions of error correction is more important than any policy… Whether errors can be corrected without violence is not a “concern” but a condition for successfully addressing concerns. (David Deutsch)
The background was the Big Picture motivation for getting involved in politics, see above.
There were ‘defensive’ reasons, such as lowering the chances of dangerous extremism regaining power in Europe.
There were ‘offensive’ reasons, such as the possibilities to develop a new national strategy with science and technology at its heart — for the economy, for security, and for the reform of government itself — and change No10 to make this a core focus of the PM’s job.
Overall Leave seemed to me much less dangerous, for Britain and the rest of Europe, than Remain. The media portrays me as supporting Brexit because I’m a ‘risk taker who likes to move fast and break things’. This is not at all how I saw the choice.
Insiders describe me as ‘so reckless/aggressive’ etc but it seems to me they’re the ones gambling on the euro working (contrary to historical experiments with multi-national currency unions), they’re the ones happy to gamble on obviously duff institutions preparing for crises like pandemics, they’re the ones escalating recklessly over Ukraine — while I’ve been trying to hedge against the euro’s risks, screaming ‘fix crisis management before a pandemic hits’, and urging caution over nuclear weapons rather than gung ho ‘it’s all bluff!’
Seems to me they’re the ‘reckless’ ones and I’m actually much more cautious and conservative than widely believed…
A. Immigration and extremism
The combination of free movement (extended even to child killers let out of prison early and other categories widely seen as appalling) plus a historic wave of migration from Africa and Asia plus repeated failures on Islamic terrorism (partly because of the ECHR) plus the EU’s chronic inability to cope and insistence, in response to concerns, ‘tough, there’s no alternative to free movement’ — this was generating support for extreme parties across Europe, even near-fascist parties have got a third of the vote in places like Austria and Greece (see below).
I thought (and said before the referendum) that taking back democratic control of immigration policy would: kill off extremism here, shift immigration from being the top public priority to a medium or low priority, retire Farage/UKIP, and allow a better immigration policy similar to the Australian points system, including making Britain much more open to high skills and exceptional talent, plus tougher action on illegals would gain public support for a new immigration system. The FT, Economist et al predicted the opposite — that leaving would ‘turbo charge UKIP’ etc.
We were right, the FT/Economist et al wrong. All data shows unarguably that hostility to immigrants dropped consistently in the years after the referendum and immigration dropped from the public’s top priority to a much lower priority (however you started it, every focus group in 2015-16 turned to immigration within 2 minutes). Even strong Remain and ‘more immigration always’ supporters like Professor Portes accept this. Much of the media, especially the Guardian, tried to run campaigns claiming the opposite, that Britain was a new centre for ‘hate crimes and racism’. This is so far out of whack with the data that, although it worked on the BBC initially, it has not worked overall.
We succeeded in making it easier for exceptional talent to come (though it’s still too hard). The Tories have mangled aspects of immigration policy and are letting in far too many while continuing to fail to build needed infrastructure, i.e what we promised not to do in the 2019 election.
They cannot grip illegal immigration because they cannot face the problem of the ECHR/HRA and judicial review. I’ve said repeatedly that No10 got to the bottom of this with lawyers in 2020. Legal advice was clear. But Boris didn’t want to confront the truth and didn’t think he had to (because he thought Starmer too rubbish to exploit it). No10 has generally lied to MPs and the media about this since 2010 (except when I was there).
I also hoped that if we left the EU might change course on free movement and therefore lower the potential for extremism and trade wars. (Hasn’t yet.)
(An example of how mainstream news is fake. The day after I published the draft of this on 3 June, the BBC published this piece on immigration after interviewing numerous Home Secretaries. How many mentions of ‘ECHR’, ‘Human Rights Act’, or ‘judicial review’? Zero. After millions of words written, endless TV coverage over years, the BBC tries to get some historical context and totally ignores central issues and reports lots of dopey quotes from MPs. Fake analysis, fake politics, fake government.)
B. Economic stagnation and danger of crisis
The Eurozone has suffered low growth, high debt, high taxes, unfunded pensions, and an anti-entrepreneurial and anti-technology elite culture. The euro has worsened economic problems and caused serious hardship and political tension especially across the south. After the 2008 financial crisis the entire structure wobbled and was saved by breaking their own laws: ‘when the going gets tough, you gotta lie’ as Juncker famously said. This wrecked Greece. And it remains highly unstable and vulnerable to disaster.
I saw the euro experiment as the economic equivalent of the famous ‘when genius failed’ LTCM hedge fund disaster in 1998 — an attempt to justify the economic rationale of ‘picking up nickels in front of a steamroller’ that would likely end similarly.
Insiders’ assumption is that the centralised uniform regulation of the Single Market is good for growth. I think this model is more a force for stagnation than dynamism and a force for boosting profits for a few big well-connected companies rather than a more competitive and healthier ecosystem.
I think that political and regulatory diversity is valuable. Post-Renaissance Europe developed science and the Industrial Revolution partly because there were both a) strong elements of a common culture and b) regulatory competition. If you couldn’t get funding/permission in one country you could get it elsewhere. The centralised bureaucratic uniformity of China generated stagnation and a culture that burned its own navy to stop interactions with the world. The American Founding Fathers enshrined competitive federalism and the ideas of Hume and Adam Smith. Hamilton’s vision has been much more effective in protecting individual rights and encouraging productivity than the Monnet-Delors project (which was explicitly hostile to the Anglo-American model).
Of course some uniform ‘platform’ rules for free trade could be beneficial but the Single Market, as Delors et al repeatedly stressed, was never about ‘free trade’ (a dangerous Anglo-American idea) and the euro was never about squeezing some nickels out of forex costs — they were intended primarily as a catalyst for ‘political union’ (see below).
And the ratchet of Brussels towards greater regulation and making error-correction extremely hard is sure to get worse with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (NB. this is NOT the ECHR), which gives the ECJ carte blanche to entrench bad regulations in unchangeable legal judgments and extend the scope of EU’s power. It’s easy to see today exactly what we warned about in the referendum — the Commission is writing crazy new regulations for data/AI and these can be entrenched and extended by the ECJ in the name of ‘human rights’. All this can only make the EU more of a backwater relative to America and China without solving the problems they say they want to solve.
Leaving gives us the freedom to regulate our economy better, including on new technologies, and avoid the costs of the EU/Eurozone stagnation and potential crises. And we have greater freedom to fail. The higher variance is net positive for Europe.
C. Political dangers of deeper centralisation
On top of the problems caused by immigration and economic stagnation, the EU project seemed dangerous politically.
The explicit logic and bureaucratic incentives of the Single Market mean ever more centralisation of power in Brussels. Every crisis is used by Brussels to deepen their power, in the tradition of the EU’s founder Jean Monnet. This process blocks swift error-correction and turns problems into crises (e.g banking regulation, their disasters with vaccines in summer 2020).
Long-term, the project of Delors-Mitterand-Kohl for economic and monetary union was intended to force ‘political union’, i.e central taxation powers and political authority to control it via a federal government similar to America’s. The EU system has less protection than in the US Constitution for the individual and the states, but consider how even these protections have allowed the US federal government to acquire vastly more power than was envisaged by the Constitution’s architects. For the Eurozone, both failure to take a great leap forward to ‘political union’ and actually making the leap seem highly dangerous and could easily generate dangerous crises and costs.
The real goal of political union is common and undisputed knowledge in Brussels. Westminster has been delusional about it since the Foreign Office abjectly failed to deal with Monnet after 1945. The dominant Insider argument in Britain has been an anti-historical attempt to justify the euro and the EU on economic grounds. This has been partly ignorance, partly dishonesty. Many Insiders over the past twenty years have been ignorant of the actual motives of the architects of the Single Market and euro. A small number have understood the history well but were highly dishonest in their public discussion, as uber-Remainer Hugo Young catalogued to their embarrassment (cf. many FO mandarins). The private mandarin view has consistently been that British voters could not be persuaded on political union so would have to be persuaded it was all about ‘free trade’. They pushed this fraud on ministers, hacks and voters. Sometimes ignorance and dishonesty merged in public figures who sort of know the history but waved it away as if there was a much better British rationale for the project, ‘ignore all that grand talk, just focus on trade dear boy’ (ironically this approach was very similar to the Bill Cash school that likes to lecture Europe on its errors). Whether or not political union will prove viable, it was not viable to keep selling the EU as ‘all about free trade’ because Insiders thought voters were too racist and old fashioned to be told the truth. Even after it became obviously counterproductive they never came up with a better strategy and this helped us win the referendum.
Many of its supporters, from the Commission itself to supporting academics such as Garton Ash, see the EU as a new form of ‘empire’. But the history of Europe dealing with stagnation, ethnic/racial tensions, and political extremism is one of repeated extremism and bloodshed. And the EU — both the Commission and leading politicians — is hopeless on challenges such as new technology, the shift of wealth, science and power to Asia, or Putin. (Remember when Trump warned Germany about its dependence on Russian gas, elite Remainer-world laughed at him and treated it as an example of his stupidity?)
The EU’s legal system is fundamentally incompatible with the English common law, judicial review and civil service. Forcing these to co-exist necessarily causes havoc in ways that do not apply to France. I’d said this would happen in a crisis and it happened in spring 2020 (cf. procurement below).
The view that by being part of the project we could ‘influence’ it in fundamentally different directions was delusional particularly after the euro was born. This delusion also guaranteed bad relations as we persistently lectured the others that they ought to change course and they replied with growing exasperation ‘we’ve created the Single Market and the euro and we believe in them and we’re fed up of being told it’s a mistake by London politicians who keep conning their own voters our project is about free trade!’
This delusion is common to Insider world which also is obsessed with the idea of ‘Britain punching above its weight’ while simultaneously refusing to face the realities of our institutional failure, the nightmares of the MOD, and all the ways we kneecap ourselves from ‘punching’ at all.
I prefer to focus on fixing our own institutions than the cant and sanctimonious lectures we’ve delivered on the world stage for decades. ‘Punching above our weight’ should, like ‘the special relationship’ and ‘Global Britain’, be scrubbed from official statements. We need a spell of sorting ourselves out instead of encouraging our politicians to pontificate on the global stage for their own gratification while neglecting their actual jobs
D. A powerful impetus for a new national strategy.
I thought that leaving would force us to confront things Westminster could/would not face so long as we had the EU and Single Market as the foundation of national strategy.
I hoped it would push Britain to a combination of:
1/ A new strategy for the economy and public services.
Focus on long-term productivity problems rather than pretending ‘the Single Market’ was the solution to productivity and growth.
Changing our planning system which destroys so much value, makes our housing problems worse, holds back business and research.
Changing the long term path of state-controlled schools/exams/curriculum vandalising real education, the destruction of the old idea of universities, the vandalism of apprenticeship etc.
Intense focus on the ecosystem for science, technology and entrepreneurs (venture capital, universities, startups etc) — see below.
Lower taxes for most people and firms, e.g increasing the 40% threshold substantially (roughly doubling it instead of sucking more into it per Johnson).
Dramatically less regulation almost everywhere, improving regulation for advanced technology.
I thought there would be chances for new ideas:
A shift of taxation away from labour/income to consumption.
Empowering parents so new educational institutions replace much of the existing state system.
A contributory welfare system.
A big shift of taxation away from the centre to reverse the extreme shift of power and money from local to central government since 1945.
2/ A hard reboot of Whitehall, the civil service and critical institutions like the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (which blew up in 2020), JIC/JIO and prediction (precious and neglected), the National Security Secretariat (Byzantine), MoD (horrowshow) etc.
Example: procurement. We spend roughly £300 billion every year on government procurement. As I argued before and after the referendum, this system is disastrously slow, destructive, corrupting, wasteful and would kill people in the next major crisis. The gains just from improving how we spend this ~£300 billion per year would outweigh the small costs of leaving. This is near universally seen in SW1 as ‘impossible’. Also near universal in SW1 is ignorance that from 2011 we abolished the quango responsible for school building and brought in new people. The new system for school building now saves, according to HMT and other analyses, about a third of the costs relative to before our changes (and could save far more with more modular designs and modern methods). This is known in niches of Whitehall like the IPA, and seen as the best performance of any department on building since 2010, but has zero media coverage because Westminster does not care about management and how to save money.
Such progress could be extended across Whitehall. During covid this potential was dramatically demonstrated (see below and cf this blog).
3/ A huge focus on science, technology and data as a foundation for each of economic renewal, Whitehall renewal, public service renewal, and military/intelligence/security renewal.
Generally I wanted Westminster to shift its priorities from Brussels arguments over things like the CAP to more important questions about the future.
And I thought our culture — public debate, educational institutions etc — would all greatly improve with this shift of focus.
Imagine if over the past decade since Google bought DeepMind for peanuts Westminster had actually focused on AI capabilities, as I and many others suggested, instead of the endless turgid ‘we should influence Brussels’, ‘special relationship’, and ‘vision’ speeches of our ministers? This was treated as deeply eccentric even in January 2020 when I wrote my ‘misfits and weirdos’ blog. The mainstream is now suddenly updating post-Chat-GPT/GPT4. I hoped that Brexit would push the system towards having to take these things more seriously.
The strands of this new approach are deeply connected. For example, a much better procurement / state aid regime would a) raise productivity, b) improve Whitehall and save loads of money, c) it’s fundamental to fixing the horrorshow of the MoD and emergency response, d) help a serious science-technology-data plan, e) help startups.
Only a British state really making science and technology a fundamental priority could contribute to the biggest global problems and help create new ideas for international cooperation.
E. A political reboot.
I thought the parties would obviously have to change a lot in all crucial areas mentioned above.
They would be forced to take responsibility and drop the ‘this is an EU issue so there’s nothing we can really do’ attitude which has been so corrosive.
In all sorts of ways, EU membership corrupted Whitehall and encouraged Insider delusions. For example, before Brexit the Whitehall ‘write around’ process, whereby departments/ministers formally agree policy, included documents whereby ministers had to give ‘approval’ for EU legislation that they had no actual decision over. I remember when Gove, enraged by such a letter, replied ‘not approved’. An instant wrench in the gears. The Cabinet Secretary arrived: what are you doing, you can’t actually make any decision, your approval is a formality, just sign them all and pipe down. Elaborate Potemkin processes reminded me of the rotten Habsburg Empire pre-1914. It was all so modern Westminster — everybody concerned to be polite and not drop a clanger by pointing out government is increasingly fake and pretending to itself the fake is real.
In particular I thought that the Tory Party would have to change profoundly. As the architects of the euro said, we’d ‘blown up the bridges behind us’. And leaving would shake up the political situation so it would be possible to create a new electoral coalition to support a new national strategy.
The 2019 election showed the potential. Mainstream Westminster views this result as an aberration. Pundits are arguing ‘2019 was weird because of Brexit and Corbyn, the coalition that gave the 80 seat majority is unnatural, it can’t be maintained, trying to keep it will destroy the Tories’.
This is part of a general inertial force in Westminster that we saw after 2016 in which most players try to pull the arc of history back to the trajectory the world would have been on had Brexit not happened, a happier world for most Insiders. They want the Tories, like everything else, to go ‘back to normal’ which in Westminster means for most — the glorious 1990s, those halcyon days between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers.
I planned to change candidates radically for 2024, to close CCHQ and reopen campaign HQ in the Midlands (‘live in the village don’t attack the village’) and many other things to transform the rancid old Tory Party to something with much wider and deeper appeal (see below).
Safer to leave
Overall I thought Remain was highly dangerous, economically and politically. The economic gains of the Single Market seemed trivial while its costs were potentially much larger longterm. But even if I turn out to be wrong about this, on top of these economic costs are potentially enormous political costs, such as the euro blowing up and the violent extremism that killed so many millions in the 20th Century and could easily return.
I thought that the apparent ‘triumph of liberal democracy’ in Europe was/is paper thin and inherently fragile if put under pressure again by economic shocks and political extremists. Since World War I and 1917, European intellectuals have been repeatedly drawn to dangerous experiments and destructive extremism. In the 20th century, from one end of Europe to the other, torture chambers were installed. In Ukraine in 1941, the torture chambers of the NKVD fell into the hands of the advancing Nazis who found them abandoned, full of horrors. After the tide turned, the advancing NKVD reoccupied them from retreating Nazis, full of new horrors. Over the past 18 months a familiar pattern has been seen as torture chambers change hands in Ukraine, even in the exact same cities as 1941-45. These European demons, which people hoped were dead in 1991, live on. Britain and Switzerland, almost alone, escaped partly thanks to accidents of geography, partly thanks to political institutions. These political institutions should be preserved, for Europe’s sake as well as our own.
Leave would have some definite costs but these costs, mainly some trade friction, are relatively trivial relative to the dangers of the project’s natural dynamics and the sort of crises and regime collapses we see repeatedly in history. Leave was the safer option.
I also thought that after a spell we would have better relations with European countries instead of us being half-in with lots of condescending lecturing.
What happened with the dynamics of the Brexit debate 2016-19?
What I hoped
Before 23 June 2016 I hoped and assumed that if we won it would force serious reflection and change among Insiders.
They’d have to confront how they could hold almost all the cards against a startup handicapped by appalling infighting among many ludicrous characters then lose. What did that mean for their models of how voters really think and what they care about and how electoral campaigns really work?
They’d have to confront the end of the cross-party agreement that the EU and Single Market were at the core of our national strategy. What would replace it? How would policy change across so many areas? I thought Whitehall would have to prioritise productivity stagnation and science and technology much more than previously because what else would you do if forced to leave the Single Market and you had to confront core issues you’ve all been ducking?!
They’d have to confront Whitehall: the unavoidable need to change a huge amount would smash into the incredibly high friction in getting anything done, how would MPs and officials respond? How would they even do negotiations given the Foreign Office’s chronic uselessness (visible, by the way, in Alanbrooke’s diaries, showing much of our rot is older than assumed)?
They’d have to confront that all parties would have to rethink their electoral coalitions and core ideas in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. The Tories would have to deliver on the £350 million because not doing so would be blowing both feet off. They’d have to grapple with many issues they hated discussing like procurement and R&D and civil service reform. Labour would have to face extremely difficult electoral problems, e.g roughly two thirds of constituencies voting Leave gave the Tories a potentially huge advantage if the Tories could figure out how to exploit it. Would Labour continue to let the opinions of a relatively small set of younger, richer London graduates pull it away from mainstream opinion and shoot itself in the feet by obsessing like undergraduates over sex and race?
I didn’t think people like Starmer, May, the median Tory/Labour MP would read my blog and suddenly become a fan for ARPA/JASON and Red Teams in No10 but I did think self-interest might get them to:
We hate Vote Leave but we’ve just had a disastrous defeat that we didn’t see coming (especially since we spent the last week celebrating how much the country supposedly loves MPs) so for our own sake we’ll have to change or we’re guaranteed more horrid shocks and if we [Labour/Tories] don’t change but the others [Labour/Tories] do change, we’re screwed, and maybe someone will set up a new party to replace us given the tremendous changes coming…
After the referendum I predicted (privately) that the shock would force Insiders to update fundamentally.
And after Trump’s victory, I thought ‘well now, surely, at least a bit’.
Remain’s loss was a powerful signal of the old system’s rot. So was their response. So was Trump. But these signals were not, could not be, well-interpreted by the old system. Its OODA loops (observe-orient-decide-act) were broken and remained broken.
Since the referendum I’ve had much more interesting discussions about why Remain lost / Leave won in San Francisco than in Westminster.
1/ Remain Insiders created an emotionally appealing fake reality for themselves.
Insiders ignored their errors. They thrashed around screaming about ‘lies’ and how Britain was suddenly full of ‘hate crime’ then Trump won. Trump’s win made it psychologically and emotionally much easier for them to avoid changing their minds and, instead, to create a fake reality which they spread across the old media based on the core belief: Brexit and Trump show we were morally and intellectually in the right and the real danger is NOT Insider failure but ‘the global tide of populism’.
Insiders developed a story and spread it:
We are the victims of a global tide of dangerous elite-defecting ‘populists’.
We are the victims of ‘lies’ and ‘disinformation’.
We are the victims of a global conspiracy connecting Putin-Trump-Brexit via the sinister technology of digital marketing, Cambridge Analytica’s Jedi-like ‘psychographic’ marketing, and Facebook all of which has ‘industrialised disinformation’.
Idiot voters (‘lower educated’) don’t get their news from the Times and CNN, they live in ‘information bubbles’ outside big cities and were conned into voting against their own economic interests.
We didn’t lose because the system isn’t working — because of stagnant real wages, out of control borders etc — it was lying populists and Brexit that broke the system! Brexit is so stupid, so impossible (because of Ireland), it broke the Rolls Royce civil service!
So the solution is — everyone should trust us more and we need more power and money! Crush populism, defend the old institutions, more gatekeepers from the old parties, media and universities!
Quickly after Trump’s win, a network stretching from the Clinton campaign to old media (particularly the NYT) and the old universities (e.g. Timothy ‘pretend nuclear deterrence doesn’t exist’ Snyder) and others started a campaign to portray Trump as a ‘Russian agent’ and his victory the result of a Russian ‘disinformation campaign’. I won’t go into this in detail here (my old blog has lots of detail on these conspiracies) but it swept through Insider networks across the West.
Four factors strengthened this.
A. ‘Blame tech’. The old media, especially the NYT, wanted to blame the tech companies for Trump’s win a) to divert attention from the effects of their own coverage (especially Hillary’s email server), and b) embroil the tech companies (who they feared were destroying their business model) in Washington politics and regulation.
B. Insider ignorance about technology. Not one in a thousand of the elected politicians and old media hacks understood how digital marketing in general and Facebook in particular worked. Cadwalladr’s grotesque fantasies and misunderstandings of technology went mainstream not just among Insiders but among Guardian-reading graduates seeking an explanation for Brexit/Trump. One of the reasons Facebook handled the story so badly was that the Valley was slow to realise that politicians could actually choose to believe totally fake ideas about how digital advertising actually worked.
C. Hypocrisy. Their complaints about ‘lies’ ignored, obviously, their own lies. One example: Cameron and Osborne claimed repeatedly on TV for months, almost always unchallenged, that their new deal meant ‘after six months if you haven’t got a job you’ll have to leave’. This was unarguably false. The FT, Guardian et al, so keen to blame ‘lies’ for their defeat, amplified such lies because they thought they were ‘noble lies’. In the last few weeks of the campaign Gove gave a speech. The FT ignored all the serious arguments and tried to turn it into a weird ‘Gove says we should be like Albania’ story. When Gove challenged them, one of their senior hacks, Chris Giles, shrugged, ‘We’re in campaign mode now.’ These are the same people who write columns about ‘Vote Leave lies’! Unfortunately for them, their ‘campaign mode’ simply amplified ALBANIA, which was our message. I am not sympathetic to establishment whining about £350m. They started what they thought was a knife fight and bragged about their ‘ruthless’ campaign using all the powers of the state, we took out a shotgun, they complained it was ‘unfair’.
D. 'Second referendum’. In 2015 I suggested thinking about two referendums, one on the principle, one on on the deal. Everybody screamed NO including the PM, Labour and the Remain campaign. They wanted to crush Leave and insisted one vote to ‘settle it for a generation’. During the campaign we made clear we should leave the Single Market. Remain campaigned on this saying ‘VL wants to leave the SM, this is the core issue in the vote’. The media was swamped with stories from No10 saying this was ‘a huge strategic blunder’ by us. After losing they suddenly said ‘the Single Market and Customs Union weren’t on the ballot’, the opposite of what they said just weeks earlier. Then they started campaigning for a second referendum. Millions, including millions of Remain voters, could see that Remain Insiders simply didn’t want to enact the vote because they didn’t agree with it. This is partly why GET BREXIT DONE worked so well. Remainers could agree with it without agreeing ‘Brexit is good’.
The way high status Insiders latched onto Putin conspiracies, told themselves fairy tales about the defeat, and drove themselves into a circular firing squad for three years all contributed to our success in 2019. But this Brexit-Trump-Putin dynamic continued to influence policy, politics and media over covid (where the Remain network created the conspiracy that me and others were driving ‘herd immunity’ because we are evil), and over Ukraine, where it’s generated extreme Insider herding behind support for the cycle of escalation.
2/ The May government’s disastrous ‘strategy’ drove Britain into a cul-de-sac.
May and Hammond hadn’t supported Leave. The Cabinet didn’t understand what had happened. They couldn’t grip Whitehall. They rushed into disastrous announcements to show the media they were ‘committed to Brexit’ and were cheered by the ERG.
The May government did the opposite of what Vote Leave said we should do on every major issue. E.g immediately triggering Article 50, using EU citizens as negotiating chips, David Davis making absurd threats, critical errors on accepting the EU’s terms on Ireland and so on.
When they inevitably failed and the government drove themselves and the country into a cul-de-sac, the conventional wisdom was that ‘this shows how stupid Brexit was’.
The fact that a government run by two Remainers had repeatedly done the direct opposite of what the official campaign had said should happen was ignored. This pattern repeated.
3/ The Leave voice was dominated by clueless Tories with no actual plan.
The May government talked about Brexit. The ERG talked about it. All sorts of nutters we’d marginalised talked about it. Boris swung back to his own blend of Global Britain/amnesty for illegals/ERG nonsense. The media echoed it all.
VL disappeared. There was nobody to explain why we’d done it and present a very different picture of the goals and strategy. We wanted to reboot the Tories fundamentally because we thought they were appalling, the Tory MPs obviously didn’t agree! Understandably the old media focused on the views of the (most foolish) MPs.
Unfortunately during the 2016 campaign because of a) how the campaign was plagued by in-fighting among Tory MPs/UKIP and b) the media had no interest in exploring the real issues in depth, we failed to focus attention on lots of crucial issues. Instead much of the national debate focused on ‘Farage is racist so you should vote Remain’.
Once VL had gone, you therefore had a) different Tory elements arguing hopelessly for Brexit, often with ludicrous arguments and doomed negotiating ideas, and b) an enraged Remain-Insider network intent on portraying Leave as crazy-stupid-racist.
By summer 2019 there was a widespread view that, because of the disastrous position the May government had got into over Ireland, the Irish impasse proved ‘Brexit is basically impossible’. Tories who didn’t agree often pushed back against this with arguments that did not fit with the reality of the EU system or Belfast Agreement or anything else.
When I arrived in No10 one of the very first things I said to the Cabinet Secretary, PM and other key people was — forget all this bullshit about Ireland, the tail has wagged the dog for three years, the priority isn’t keeping everyone in Ireland happy, the priority is to leave, all ideas that ‘the Belfast Agreement makes Brexit impossible’ should be dropped, Ireland will work out somehow in the chaos but it is not repeat not the priority.
I was helped enormously by the fact that Boris didn’t have a clue about Ireland and didn’t care. I just told him that if we accepted the conventional wisdom on Ireland he’d be out of No10 and Chequers pronto.
4/ VL took over No10 and started to change the story.
From the start we changed the story on Brexit and carried this through to polling day. Our approach was attacked, as during the referendum, as ‘totally incoherent’. This is because the VL approach, as you can see from the previous blog, does not fit into the party system so IS incoherent in Tory v Labour terms. But this is not a good measure of whether it is the best approach for the country!
The 2020 crackup with VL and Boris/Carrie meant all sides in Westminster could ignore why VL did Brexit and what No10 started building 2019-20 has been airbrushed from public debate and replaced with myths. Everyone in SW1 is happy about this and believes almost every nonsense thing they read.
But that’s for another day…
Did you want No Deal, was it a bluff?
In July 2019 I wanted a deal but I preferred No Deal to delay.
I.e the order of my preferences was: good deal > No Deal > delay / bad deal.
No Deal was not a bluff from me, David Frost and Oliver Lewis. The notion of any coherent view — ‘bluff’ or ‘actual opinion’ — obviously did not apply to Boris who had different views every hour/day. But he did realise that if he was seen to be another Tory who talked tough then surrendered, he was toast.
There were endless pieces about supposed ‘game theory’ ideas I was supposedly applying and talking about in No10. This was all invented. ‘Game theory’ played no part in my thinking.
The Benn Act / Surrender Act changed calculations. I wanted Boris to be much more aggressive in how he handled it. He trolleyed around sometimes agreeing, sometimes telling officials he’d do as they told him. In the end he signed an anodyne letter written by the Cabinet Office which I advised him to bin.
When the crunch point hit (after some shocking calls over the previous days particularly with Merkel) I briefed Forsyth at the Spectator. I told him that a) the negotiations were headed for the rocks and that if this happened b) I’d push through an election and this would inevitably be on the basis of ‘vote for us, we’ll just leave after the election without a deal, no more wasting time the country has to move on to deal with the economy, NHS etc’ (it would have been hopeless promising ‘vote for us and another phase of talks’), therefore c) the leverage the Irish had because of the May team’s uselessness was about to run out.
Though this was seen by the media as ‘another bluff’ it was not. I meant it. When we met the Irish for the talks in the hotel shortly after, the Irish PM’s senior staff told me they saw the logic that we were heading for an election in which we’d say ‘we’re leaving in January and we’ll sort things out after’ and their leverage would vanish. If the deal hadn’t happened we’d have forced an election, won, then left immediately. (Might this have been for the better? We’d have won the election but probably not by so much. But on the other hand the Tories have totally wasted the 80 seat majority so…)
I didn’t clear this briefing with Boris before doing it because his morale had collapsed and he was extremely flaky. He freaked out but then the Irish called saying let’s talk and he perked up.
What did you think about the Protocol negotiated in 2019 to deal with Ireland?
It was deliberately contradictory because both sides wanted to punt issues to the future. It was self-evidently not a longterm solution nor seen as one by us, Ireland or Brussels.
I thought it was the best of a bad job given where we were starting from, the difficulty of juggling competing pressures plus Boris, and after the election we could resolve the problems, if necessary by binning it.
Boris mostly stuck with the plan in 2020 but he started to collapse in December 2020, the EU team could sense his collapse and the UK team had to accept a worse deal than we could have got.
My attitude before I left (November) was: ‘either we get roughly what we want or no deal, let’s have all the problems now when we’ve already got chaos with the second covid wave and when we’ve got four years to rebuild’. This would have led to either a better deal or no deal. This was the sort of ‘face problems now so we can sort them out by 2024 instead of punt things now and make them worse in the future’ disagreement that contributed to our fall out.
Why did you sack the 21 MPs in 2019? The crazier the better…
My priority was getting Brexit done so the country could move on.
The country had watched Westminster fight and fail for three years. They’d driven the country into a humiliating position.
Millions wanted to cancel the referendum.
More millions wanted someone to show leadership to end the humiliating farce.
I knew that firing the 21 would go down very well with relevant voters who were desperate to see someone show leadership. The boss firing people who contradict their fundamental goal is normal — it’s leadership. I knew normal voters would see it different to SW1.
I knew the media and MPs would go berserk and this would help. The crazier, the better. It showed we needed to GET BREXIT DONE so the country could move on!
Hague, a classic establishment figure, represented the mainstream view when he said it was the craziest act of self-harm in politics he’d ever seen.
The pundits screamed — morons, they’ve destroyed their own position, Cummings is finished!
It all helped us, just like their screaming about £350 million did in the referendum.
To me this showed Insiders don’t understand politics well and really don’t understand what it means to have real priorities. It reminded me of my very first experience in 1999 (previous blog) when the MPs didn’t realise basics about opinion on the euro.
Sacking the 21 was an obvious move if you shared my priorities. If your priority was ‘being seen as a normal SW1 player who is friendly to the underlying system’ — i.e the priority for ~100% of Insiders — then it was crazy/appalling.
How far would you have gone?
I told Boris that we should consider him advising the Queen not to give Royal Assent and therefore stop the Surrender Act becoming law. This would have meant the 31 October deadline stood and the MPs were snookered. The Supreme Court would have had no legal basis for interfering — it’s legally impossible for them to order the Queen to do anything, never mind give Royal Assent. If they’d tried to declare our action unlawful using some fake argument, I’d have told Boris to defy them as Lincoln defied the Supreme Court in the Civil War.
It hadn’t happened for centuries but my view was that we were facing people happy to cancel the biggest democratic vote in our history and have another referendum I feared would have led to serious violence. All bets were off. If necessary I’d have summoned people to march on Westminster and the Supreme Court from across the country.
Boris was too frightened just as he was too weak on the letter in October.
If he’d been prepared to contemplate it I’d have researched it properly with the public. (I suspect even if I’d been able to get Boris to go for it officials would have successfully said to him ‘this will embarrass THE QUEEN PM, you can’t do it’ and he’d have folded. He folded over smaller things.)
It’s an interesting counterfactual because you’d have had no Surrender Act, Brussels would have realised we were not bluffing on No Deal, so we’d either have left in October with No Deal or, preferably, we’d have got a deal, not perfect but better than the one we ended up with in important ways. It would have been a delicate balance on each side.
There would have been absolute bedlam from the MPs.
Was this an example of me ‘going too far’?
In an emergency one cannot be hypersensitive about methods — à corsaire, corsaire et demi.’
Why did you go to No10 July 2019 / you were an idiot because you didn’t understand Boris’s character until late 2020?
I and my team worked with Boris in the referendum. Some of us worked with him, officially or unofficially, between the referendum and summer 2019. We knew his skills and his weaknesses. We knew he was, in any objective sense, unfit to be PM in almost every way.
We also knew that he sort of knew too, when in Self-Aware Mode. On 24 June 2016 in Vote Leave HQ, just after Cameron had resigned, Boris pulled me into the odd little room where ‘the real campaign within the campaign’ was run. What now? Boris told me with a laugh, ‘Obviously it’s ludicrous me being PM — but no more ludicrous than Dave or George, don’t you think?’ I agreed and reminded him of the main elements of the deal we’d agreed with Gove the previous Sunday about what to do next.
But the question facing us in summer 2019 was not: ‘is Boris fit to be PM?’.
It was: ‘should we a) try to help him solve the constitutional crisis, if necessary by winning an election, or b) leave the whole thing alone, knowing that without us the Conservative Party, being what it is, will probably fail to solve the problem and cause a second referendum, Corbyn as PM and maybe its own destruction?’
The Hollywood ‘25 words or less’ version:
Corbyn + second referendum = disaster. Constitutional crisis + Boris = chance to improve science, defence, Whitehall and more.
We discussed the dynamics of the situation and the pros and cons of each choice. I’ve tried to summarise it as we thought at the time…
Boris is obviously unfit for the job but…
The combination of a second referendum and Corbyn would probably be an even bigger disaster than Boris as PM. A second referendum will be violent, MPs won’t be able to campaign safely outside the M25 without armed guards.
If we get Brexit done, all sorts of good things will happen and are possible.
The problems of Boris as PM can be partly mitigated by us, given we understand Whitehall much better than him and understand effective political action much better than him and the Conservative Party. Our team will handle rough seas much better than the others.
Features of Boris that are in principle very bad in a PM can be turned to advantage. In particular, his ignorance of Whitehall, his uninterest in policy and his desire to enjoy himself rather than work hard — together with the constitutional crisis and MP terror — all combine to provide a very weird opportunity to force through certain important things that the system left to itself won’t do. Precisely because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, we may be able to get him to agree things ‘the system’ will think are ‘extreme’ but we think are necessary — like re-orienting the whole state machine away from Brussels towards science and technology.
There are great attractions in leaving the whole thing alone and watching the Conservative Party implode. Yes, getting Brexit done will force the parties to change but may also mean giving the Tories a majority. Few will say ‘thanks for saving us, now we’ll do what you say’. It’s more likely most MPs will say ‘we hate you even more, get lost’ and resist the changes needed. Instead of saving Westminster and the Conservative Party from themselves, this is maybe the best chance we’ll get in decades to destroy the Conservative Party and create something much better. Historically, it’s this sort of crisis, like a war, that creates moments of extreme leverage.
The Foreign Office experience is a severe warning of the dangers ahead. Boris won’t read the papers. He cannot chair meetings to save his life. He has no idea how Whitehall works and has no interest in it. He wants to believe everyone loves him and is blind to official manoeuvring even when it is brazen. He is easily tricked and blocked by the most junior official. He cannot see how delays are used to thwart him, how slowing things down is officials’ strongest card. His whole being wants to throw himself into the arms of polite young Balliol men and enjoy the trappings of power while they do the work and pull the strings. He believes in the system — after all it’s made him famous and is making him PM! While we saw him in self-aware/ruthless mode in the last four weeks of the referendum, we also saw him immediately swing back to normal mode where he stayed in the F.O. Maybe he’ll just collapse in No10. But even if we do somehow get through the crisis, we face the danger of him then not letting us do what we want but instead concluding: the Vote Leave team is much too much like hard work, the Party and media hate them, why not get rid of them and throw myself back into the arms of the polite Balliol men?
Carrie is a wildcard. At the moment she’s on our side because a) she knows he has no plan for what to do and can’t make plans, b) she knows he will get eaten alive by the machine and the MPs around him don’t know what to do, c) she hates his other advisors and doesn’t want them pulling his strings. It is extremely useful that she wants our team to go to No10 and is telling him to agree my terms. But she’s also a standard Westminster press officer who confuses ‘political communication’ with ‘talking to / being friends with the lobby’. She wants to bring into senior roles friends like the grotesque gossip columnist Wikham. Their relationship is weird — God knows what will happen. History is full of these sort of situations going haywire.
If we win the election then he tries to move us out of No10, we can try to move him out of No10 — two can play at that game — and we can use reshuffles to move some much more able people into position…
After much discussion we decided to roll the dice. As often in politics the immediate prospect of a second referendum and Corbyn — with all the misery, poverty and damage to democracy this would bring — outweighed calculations about the distant future. Maybe the Tory Party wouldn’t die easily, anyway a replacement would be the work of a decade, and so on.
I went into this in depth HERE.
For more detail on my basis thoughts about No10, see: Big Picture, Why I did Vote Leave (blog 1), and How I actually spent my time (below).
Why did you want a rubbish Cabinet of Yes Men’?
The media reported from the start that I had heavily influenced the Cabinet picks in July 2019.
I had no influence at all.
I had steered clear of the leadership contest and had been abroad until the Sunday before 24 July when he picked the Cabinet.
My only attempt to influence it was to tell him before 24/7 advising against making Javid Chancellor as I thought there were much stronger candidates. Obviously this was ignored.
I do not know the calculations behind his decisions. From 24/7 I was so busy I did not go into it with him. The process had been highly chaotic as he’d promised the same jobs to multiple people and couldn’t remember all his lies (and didn’t want to remember).
The weekend before the 2019 election I told him that we would win a decent majority and we should immediately do a major reshuffle before Christmas, remove Javid, Wallace and many others. I said that the most important thing was to use the first six months to make huge progress and this required new ministers.
He refused. He said it would start the new government with ‘bad blood, everybody screaming at me, Saj has been a bit useless but we can help him improve’ etc.
This foreshadowed a conversation we would have a lot in 2020.
Me: We’re here to make huge changes, we promised huge changes, short-term this will be bumpy but long-term will pay off massively, we have to use our majority and political capital in 2020 for the biggest hardest things like planning reform and Whitehall reform so we have time to see the gains.
Boris: I don’t like the sound of this, sounds like everyone will be screaming at me.
Me: Not as loudly as if you get to midterm and you’ve done fuck all and by then can’t get big things through the demented Parliament.
In the first weeks of January we had this discussion again. He kept saying ‘now’s the time to make up with the media, the FT used to love me, I want to make friends with them’ etc.
I kept saying: the FT is never going to love you and that’s not our focus, our focus is on the real problems, a real plan for the NHS, if we drive planning reform through in 2020 while Labour is screwed so we can actually build things, then you’ll be a famous historical figure and we’ll smash the next election, if we waste 2020 and focus on the media, we’ll blow it, you and me are only in this office because we DIDN’T focus on the media last year, now we’ve got an 80 majority WHY WOULD WE FOCUS ON THE MEDIA NOW?!
NO NO NO, I WANT TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE MEDIA. THE FT WILL LOVE ME AGAIN LIKE WHEN I WAS MAYOR!
What really happened with Sajid Javid resigning and Sunak?
When the reshuffle came in February I again argued for the removal of many from Cabinet and again failed to persuade him.
Saj had serious problems with some of his spads. He hired duffers and people who wanted to have public fights with No10. In 2019 they screwed up badly and to escape blame briefed against the Cabinet Secretary (which I apologised to him for). The team was a liability throughout the election campaign hence CCHQ pushing Sunak forward. In January they were already delighting the lobby by briefing their own lines and causing chaos. I didn’t have any personal issues with Saj. I felt sorry for him as he was promoted out of his depth and like all such people this is really the boss’s fault.
Having refused to replace Wallace in February, despite the unarguable grounds for his removal (grounds that should also disqualify him from a NATO job), he could see I was fed up.
‘We can’t make much progress with a rubbish Cabinet and a broken Whitehall.’
‘Name something else you want.’
‘I’m not going to kill myself 18 hours a day to watch Saj’s spads deliberately creating a public war with No10, it’s mad and depressing and a waste of everyone’s time to be in this situation weeks after the election, either I bin them or you do.’
‘Haha, sure, no problem.’
‘I think Saj might resign.’
‘Haha over spads?! What sort of idiot would resign over spads!?’
The next day, after Saj had gone, he looked at me with narrow eyes.
You knew he’d walk didn’t you.
I told you he might, you laughed, anyway it’s all for the best he couldn’t do the job, Rishi will be much better.
Mmmmmm [staring hard]
The media says I wanted Sunak there because I could control him, he was a stooge etc.
I wanted him there because:
He could do the job and grip HMT.
He wanted to work as part of one team, he was happy with one spad team and trusted me to deal with him fairly, no more HMT spads briefing against No10 and wasting everybody’s time.
He wanted to focus on HMT and policy, not politics.
He agreed on total information transparency and an end to the absurd way in which HMT hid information from the PM, a shocking way to work and a shocking indictment of Whitehall. (Immediately after I left, HMT returned to the old way.)
It made sense to promote someone sensible, hardworking etc to a senior position as we’d already been discussing Boris blowing up / Carrie blowing him up. Better to be prepared…
I actually disagreed with him about quite a lot, we aren’t very similar politically.
E.g he supported breaking the 2019 election tax guarantee which I thought terrible economics and politics.
I wanted a systematic removal of ways in which taxes, regulations etc irrationally/unreasonably/unfairly help richer/more powerful people/companies. E.g there are pension rules for richer people with no economic rationale, just ‘Tories want to help their friends/families/‘our people’. I wanted to scrap such rules and tie the cash to politically relevant projects. And I wanted to a) leave the 45p rate and b) raise the 40% threshold a lot (maybe double it). Boris looked at me like I was mad and told Javid and Sunak to bin the 45p rate, with plenty of jokes about his own finances. I didn’t get the impression Sunak agreed with me either.
If Saj had not been replaced then either a) the government would have collapsed in spring or b) Saj would have been replaced amid an economic meltdown. Remember, furlough came from Mike Webb and Sunak’s team, not from the Bank of England or HMT officials. There’s no way Saj would have thought of it and been able to get HMT to execute.
The media story was you spent your time on politics, the media, ‘campaigning’, ‘culture wars’ in 2020, how did you actually spend your time?
Whiteboard showing what I spent most of my time on and what we were building, 6 September 2020
In 2020 obviously covid took a huge amount of my time from February.
In January I focused on the Big Picture reasons for why I’d done Brexit and how I wanted Whitehall to change (cf. blog 1) and returned to these in May after the first wave.
I spent almost no time talking to the media (less than an hour per week of a 100 hour week, often 0 hours). Nobody including the PM believed this. A consequence was that, on the principle of ‘if you’re not a source you’re a target’, much of the media joined the campaign against me. I would often point out to the PM ‘if I was briefing X all the time as you and Carrie think, why do you think X writes hit pieces on me, you know I’m not a moron, if I were briefing them then I’d either appear positively or I wouldn’t be mentioned at all, what’s wrong with you?!’ The only hack I spoke to semi-regularly (every ~3 weeks on average) was Laura Kuenssberg because she was political editor for the national broadcaster and this was particularly important in covid. E.g I could guarantee her that some stories were false and would not happen so the BBC did not amplify fake news (e.g people being banned from leaving London in the week of 16/3).
I spent almost no time on politics. I didn’t attend Cabinet once in 2020 (though I heard some zoom ones in the background). I didn’t go to a single PMQ meeting. I scheduled important Project Speed meetings (below) in the Cabinet Room during PMQs. Most of my political involvement was trying to get Boris and others to spend more time talking to MPs because the physical separation forced by covid played havoc with normal party management (which was bad anyway). I had little success in this. Boris always hated spending time with MPs and in 2020 thought he didn’t really have to. (A reason he got booted was he never sorted the Whips out and paid attention to this.)
In summer the media kept writing I was busy working on ‘culture war’ campaigns. This was doubly ludicrous. Not only was I not doing this, it was clear that the PM, partly under the influence of Carrie, had no interest in such things and if anything was intent on doing things to make the London media happy that would have antagonised most of the country. I therefore was even keener to focus on my actual priorities. (I think there’s huge opportunities to tear Labour apart by intelligent campaigns on ‘culture’ issues, if chosen wisely and executed properly, but a) I didn’t think Boris wanted to, b) I didn’t think he would stick to doing it properly even if he started, c) starting then collapsing was the worst of all worlds (e.g the way he kept picking a fight with Rashford over food contrary to our pleading), d) the country obviously needed a different focus then.)
Another reason you know this media story is rubbish is — there were no culture war campaigns from No10! For the media story to be right you’d have to believe that the most effective campaign team in Britain with control of No10 press office wanted to start culture war campaigns but couldn’t get them into the media.
Here are some of the things I spent my time on apart from covid:
In January I started setting up a data science team for the PM’s office, dealing with the comical lack of modern tools (e.g not even a file sharing system or secure cloud), and getting a team going on data reform across Whitehall. This wasn’t fast enough to help much with Wave 1 covid but did make a huge difference from the summer. This team survived and has done much outstanding work. Sadly it has been formally moved to the Cabinet Office instead of being part of the PM’s office as we set it up — but it’s a big start (Truss predictably tried to remove it altogether). The media wrote nonsense about my ‘weirdo and misfit’ blog but we recruited some outstanding people like Logan Graham (AI researcher) and James Phillips (neuroscientist) to our network (some joined as officials to minimise noise).
In January I started meetings on how to improve forecasting in crises, to help the MoD horrorshow etc, including with Vallance and JIC. Some of this has progressed but I don’t know how well it’s done and I think most is classified. I doubt forecasting is being used with JIC/JIO and the PM’s office as it could be.
In January I started a big change to the whole physical layout of No10 because it was hopeless for a crisis and COBR was only suitable for a narrow range of meetings. The PM agreed this change and we started the process of moving then he pulled the rug after it was agreed. After the first wave exposed the failings of No10 and the Cabinet Office, he agreed to revive this plan. The same thing happened. We spent ages on it in summer, he agreed it, we started to do it, a load of people actually moved, then he pulled the rug out again. No10 still doesn’t have a proper place/system to deal with big crises. I started a parallel process to create a new Situation Centre suitable for crises like wars, terrorism, pandemics. It has died. Keeping the 1914 model that couldn’t cope with 1914 for crises moving much faster means we’re doomed to repeat errors, as happened on Ukraine.
In January I started meetings on procurement reform including with outside experts and the IPA. Ironically our regular meetings had to be cancelled in February-March so I could deal with actual procurement disasters with covid. It was restarted from May. In 2019 when I suggested that people in Westminster should read Andy Grove’s High Output Management, one of the few true classics of management by a legendary manager, this was seen in Westminster as a sign of how out of place I was there. This was true but not in the way pundits and MPs thought. The lack of such skills became a national emergency in 2020 (cf. here).
We got going the Integrated Review on defence, security, foreign policy etc. This also got derailed by covid. From summer it took a lot of my time and was one of the reasons I didn’t resign in summer. We began a secret process with the Cabinet Office, HMT and some MOD officials, plus some outside experts, to get the first honest MOD budget for ~25 years. We agreed a load of projects that should be stopped (some of them did stop, much of this was reversed within hours of me leaving No10 such as disastrous AJAX). No10 stopped pushing serious MOD reform. Insiders tell me that in most ways the MOD has kept going in the wrong direction. The MOD lies constantly, not just on Ukraine, but on all their procurement failures and rightly thinks that the MPs don’t care and won’t act.
Connected, I began meeting with the deep state about the nuclear enterprise which is in a shocking state. In the autumn I insisted the PM be briefed on lots of these issues. After, he walked through the swing doors of the Cabinet Room to the Outer Office, retrieved his phone from the secure box that blocks signals, scrolled through dozens of WhatsApps, and said to me crossly ‘WHAT a waste of my time’. Sums up a lot of how differently we saw the point of Brexit. The details have been classified by successive governments so the horrorshow is hidden, and the MoD budget is ever more distorted by this hidden pacman which cannibalises conventional capabilities. I met with many parts of the deep state, special forces, intelligence agencies and niche agencies some of which said they’d never been asked to a meeting in No10 for 20 years (which explained a lot). I asked questions like: 1) where is the place/entity that thinks across all aspects of conflict — conventional, WMD, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, psychological, special forces, space, cyber etc? Answer: nowhere. 2) What is the process for prioritising aggressive intelligence operations? Answer: Here is the Cabinet Office process, it’s a nightmare and the agencies hate it and it’s highly conservative and we’re wasting a huge proportion of our capabilities. Many other parts of the deep state are deeply rotten: e.g the vetting system is an expensive disaster and contributes to delaying critical action because of the backlog for DV/STRAP vetting; they can’t even establish secure video at Chequers so if something happens the PM has to drive back to London (the sort of cheapskate idiocy that is rife).
On 25 January I asked Hancock to prepare serious pandemic plans for the next Spending Review and to Red Team existing plans. Obviously this didn’t happen. I set up meetings to visit Porton Down etc which were derailed by the actual pandemic.
In 2019 I started a series of meetings on the ecosystem of: basic research, applied research, universities and other research centres, venture capital, startups and entrepreneurs, intellectual property, the horrors of science funding agencies, state aid, making the government a good customer for startups etc. Our politicians’ casual vandalism of this ecosystem makes us less attractive to investors, and spins the flywheel of decline ever faster.
I worked with officials on many issues around energy and technology including: how government should integrate thinking about energy security, climate change and the legal Net Zero obligation; the nightmare of 20 years of energy policy and regulation including rebooting nuclear energy (including small modular reactors) and creating a market for direct air carbon capture (cf. Stripe’s project); AI and drones; how to change regulation to make it easier for R&D in new areas.
Connected to these productivity issues I asked Alison Wolf to come to No10 and drive change on skills, apprenticeships, vocational education, FE etc (which we’d started in the DfE 2011-14).
In January I started regular meetings with departments to set priorities and agree how they’d be monitored, how No10 should intervene when things were going wrong etc. This was revived after Wave 1. A critical hole in the capabilities of the state and in our politics is the lack of a system that can ensure dynamic action when the PM and their handful of key staff are distracted which is almost all the time. Post-Thatcher No10 has resembled a broken lighthouse. Its focus lurches to what the media decides. It can briefly (hours/days) force action. Then the lighthouse lurches to the next media focus. A bright line briefly shines again on something new. On the previous subject, most useful action slows, stops or reverses. I wanted to rebuild No10 so that focus and dynamism could be kept on important longterm priorities when I was stuck with Boris in meetings on relative trivia. Many of the most important things to fix are also near impossible for anybody to fix because of the vetocracy unless the PM really wants them fixed. See below #13.
In May I started Project Speed meetings every Wednesday in the Cabinet room as the PM did PMQs. They were to go through in detail many things where the vetocracy and Whitehall have slowed to a snail’s pace with terrible consequences: e.g procurement, planning reform, and the hybrid bill process whereby Parliament authorises infrastructure. This system ensures that planning, environmental review etc are sequential, hideous and crazy expensive. Planning process #1 for years… Then environmental process #1 for years… Then appeals… Then process #2… further appeals … Next environmental process… Judicial reviews of the appeals… Appeals of the judicial reviews of the appeals etc. It’s so crazy it means taking over 20 years to dual carriageway ~18 miles of the A66 is totally normal. If you actually care about productivity and growth, you have to spend time on things like this. Although parts of HMT are nightmarish (particularly on tax, and macro policy), HMT was strongly supportive on these things. No10 lost momentum on almost all such work when VL left.
I started a parallel process to look at regulation in detail and decide priorities for scrapping and amendment. E.g It was clear that Brussels would not get data/AI regulation right (above), and they’re very unlikely to be able to fix errors fast because they almost never do unless it’s existential (e.g suddenly ditching their own laws to save the euro). And as we said in the referendum it’s clear the Charter of Fundamental Rights (NB. not the ECHR) will be used by the Commission and ECJ to make these problems worse for the EU. Almost all of this was stopped when VL left.
I started talking to the then Cabinet Secretary in January about civil service reform. E.g in my January ‘weirdos and misfits’ blog, I’d said that the awful HR system whereby almost everybody moves on after two years, because it’s the only way to get promoted and/or a pay rise, must change. This blog was described by the media as highly controversial but it actually wasn’t and this point in particular was universally agreed — nothing I ever said about the civil service got more agreement, literally nobody ever told me they disagreed including the two most senior officials in the country. This restarted with the new Cabinet Secretary. Some of the things we discussed… a) Making appointments open to outside Whitehall by default, instead of internal appointments being default. b) Whether to revive the old idea of a separate ‘Delivery Unit’ or to integrate policy and ‘delivery’ (i.e monitoring priorities, intervening where necessary etc) with the new data science team. I supported the latter and so did most people. It needs better management to make it work but is inherently better and faster because, for example, problems will be seen earlier if policy people are talking to management people from the start rather than after months of thinking. c) Far fewer officials, better officials, training taken seriously, and much higher pay for some. d) The management of Permanent Secretaries, who actually manage departments (not the ministers). This is a black box. Ministers and the PM have had no involvement. I said that priorities for Permanent Secretaries should be formally agreed with the PM and Cabinet Secretary and the PM’s office should be involved in judging performance. Anybody who understands management can see immediately the black box system in which the PM has no visibility, never mind involvement, in how the people legally responsible for departments as accounting officers spend their time is ludicrous. It was often reported that I wanted to set up a large PM’s Department and micro-manage departments. False. I wanted a small excellent No10 team ensuring excellent people had the authority and responsibility to deliver priorities, not another large bureaucracy. No10’s critical role should be PEOPLE, it can’t manage everything itself. I wanted to greatly cut the size of the centre. The Cabinet Office has grown into a low quality sprawling empire with, for example, huge numbers of communications people who just cause trouble. It is rightly disliked by entities like the intelligence agencies because it has extended its grip but its grip is deadly and slow. And the broken management system of No10/Cabinet Office means that No10 gets involved randomly in all sorts of things it should not be involved in while failing to do what it should do: set priorities, empower senior people with the responsibility and authority to deliver, and upgrade failing teams really fast.
I started processes to change judicial review substantially.
There was a long list of things connected with MI5, terrorism, surveillance etc that I worked with the No10 PS on, not suitable for blogging. NB. Deep in the system the ECHR/HRA undermines counter-terrorism and security generally. It also undermines cooperation with the US intelligence services. This is seen by most officials as a reasonable tradeoff. I have a different view as do many in the deep state. But the more important thing is there is close to zero democratic discussion of these issues. MPs have no sight of this world. Ministers have been pushed out of it over the past decade and don’t probe because they don’t want to have to deal with difficult issues. This leads to weird things — for example, we sometimes assassinate people with drones because it is easier to get this approved by lawyers than it is to arrest them and deal with the ECHR/HRA nightmares. We sometimes pay off terrorists bringing legal cases rather than expose the ECHR/HRA horrorshow in open court, keeping the payments secret — ironically the payments sometimes cannot be made because conflicting laws make it illegal to send the money. Some of these things make jaws hit tables when people read the STRAP documents. The PM once promised Trump help with UK special forces to grab some particularly terrible people; cue official panic, ‘sorry PM but legal advice is that we can’t do XXX because of the ECHR’. All such things remain invisible to Parliament. (An example of how HMT can vandalise the deep state: some years ago HMT tried to ‘save money’ by stipulating that intelligence operations could only be authorised *if a Whitehall customer was prepared to pay for them*! This is rule by what the IFG refers to as ‘the grownups’. Cf. The Secret State.)
These things plus covid took up almost all my time. I therefore spent most of my time talking to officials because officials have almost all the power, particularly on security, defence etc.
The Brexit negotiations took little of my attention in 2020. I focused my time on high leverage priorities where it was hard to make progress. We had a system for Brexit and Frost/Lewis worked well with officials. It did not need me much (see below).
Why was ‘a British ARPA’ so important to you?
The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? Alan Kay.
There is a fascinating mismatch between a) the incredible importance of the creation of the internet and personal computing by ARPA-IPTO and PARC in the 1960s-70s and b) the almost total lack of interest in how they were managed, why they were so amazingly fruitful. (It’s similar to the way politicians devour history and biographies but have a near lack of interest in the unrecognised simplicities of high performance.)
Roughly all funding agencies globally work on near identical principles — committees, applications, audits, peer review etc. In Britain normal science funding is horrific and a vast amount of the lives of young researchers are wasted writing dumb forms. Universities add to the horrors. Whitehall processes are made worse by multiple layers — the individual agencies like EPSRC make decisions, then they’re reviewed by UKRI, then they’re reviewed by BEIS, then they’re reviewed by HMT — then HMT ludicrous micromanagement cascades orders back down through these layers, response ripple back up, and this can go on for over a year over something simple. This has got worse and worse over decades.
ARPA and PARC were totally different and super-productive.
But super-productive processes are inherently dangerous for normal bureaucratic management.
Many tried to reject the idea of creating a British ARPA by arguing that ‘Britain can never match America and China, Cummings is pursuing a fool’s errand’ etc.
But this criticism totally misses the real point.
No we cannot match the SCALE of what America and China does.
This is exactly why strategic advantage can only come by focus on doing things DIFFERENTLY!
The old 1960s ARPA is a model for how SMALL amounts of funding can be revolutionary IF the processes are super-productive.
If China pours hundreds of billions into bureaucracies that are just like those Brussels funds, we should not copy that.
We should spend our money differently. There should be wider experiments with more diverse funding for science and technology. ARPA is one such approach. And it was constructed so that it can experiment with different funding mechanisms itself.
Is it really so ‘mad’ for me to push for a tiny drop of government spending to be available for researchers that can be spent quickly without all the normal committees and demand for consensus that kills so many ideas that are supposedly what we’re actually trying to find? It’s not like I’m suggesting something that is actually my idea, I’m just saying — let’s do what we know was superproductive.
ARPA / ARIA was connected to changes in No10 such that science and technology became central to the office of the PM, including an analog of JASON to help figure out ideas to pursue for strategic advantage. This was all stopped/reversed.
What was the truth about the shakeup of the government communication machine?
‘What your industry does, if you call it an industry, is bullshit … you guys don’t know anything about communication.’ Steve Jobs, rather unfairly to David Axelrod but ‘directionally right’ as they say in San Francisco
When VL left in November it all seemed to be bound up with recent news about big changes to government communication. It wasn’t really. Those arguments were a proxy for the real issues: was Boris sick of being constrained by me, sick of being told No, did he think he could break his deal and get away with it etc.
But the planned changes to government communication are an interesting issue generally.
I wanted to:
Fire over 90% of people working in government communication, in some places like the Cabinet Office closer to 99%.
Limit departments to ~10 people each. 2011-14 we cut the DfE comms team from >250 to <50 and everything greatly improved. We did the entire referendum with <10 press people to deal with the entire national/international media. Great teams must be pruned ruthlessly, cf. Kelly’s famous Skunk Works principles.
Create a spokeswoman in her thirties who would become one of the most famous people in the world, someone much, much more sympathetic than the median Tory MP who would replace almost all ministerial interviews (which are 99% bad or a waste of time). It’s better to get a few people communicating really well and focus others on their actual job (see below).
Hire creative talent from outside politics, especially Hollywood and WWE. They really know how to tell stories. Their content is much, much more interesting than political content (look at metrics for, e.g Hillary’s campaign vs popular entertainment). And they are higher calibre than the normal ‘comms’ people who dominate politics.
Build our own broadcast studio that could communicate direct via all channels bypassing the old media.
Reorient No10 away from ‘media entertainment service’ to ‘focus on high leverage priorities’ with communications handled by a new team in a new way.
You can see why the old media really wanted me gone.
This was connected to some other big changes:
Hire a handful of people from outside politics, put them in the Lords as ministers, and have them drive crucial priorities — i.e a scaled up version of what we successfully did with Lord Nash in the DfE. Totally missed in accounts of DfE reforms 2010-14 was the importance of us creating a Lords minister who just focused on some core priorities and managed officials directly as if he was the Permanent Secretary.
Close CCHQ and reopen it in the Midlands far from the MPs and media. Although this sounds very weird in SW1 it’s conventional wisdom in America to put a Presidential campaign away from the daily nonsense of Washington so the staff can focus and don’t confuse hanging out with bigshot hacks with their actual job.
Bring together an AI/data science team building new tools, this new communication machine actually applying what we know about what really works (mostly unknown in politics), Hollywood/WWE creative talent, and a political team. A political machine that really pushes the edge-of-the-art across these areas would create huge value and blow competitors out the water, especially if they have advantages of controlling the government system.
I sold it to Boris as ‘this machine will make us invulnerable in 2024’.
Initially (late days of 2019 election when I first told him about some of the above) he liked it.
He agreed with the first steps and promised not to interfere later.
Then it all got tangled with his fear of me having too much power and Carrie’s operation to push VL out of No10.
I thought that if Boris could be persuaded to focus on winning in 2024 then maybe we could shove him around the country filmed by our studio opening train stations and other things he liked while a sort of ‘para-government’ actually drove through real plans.
This was the only way I could see to dealing with real problems as him being actual PM and jabbering to the media all day was obviously doomed as a government plan and a political plan.
Ironically Starmer being so rubbish at politics undermined the chances of this as Boris calculated he didn’t need to do much to beat Starmer and didn’t need us, or some new scary sounding entity that would annoy his old hack friends, to do it.
No, I didn’t think we’d be able to pull this off, I thought the odds were low, but this is what I would have done if he’d left me alone to build.
(Lee Cain, director of communications, wrote about it here.)
Why did you threaten Whitehall with a ‘hard rain’ in a video call?
There are thousands of references in the media to me saying this on a conference call with officials. I didn’t say it.
When this was reported officials in the PM’s office knew I never said it as did the then Cabinet Secretary (officials listened to such spad calls, reasonably).
There were similar stories about me talking of ‘hit lists’.
Such stories fitted what the media wanted to write — that I would rant at people as part of a ‘war with the civil service’.
These stories were presented in the media as stories briefed by me and my team, leading to follow up stories about how stupid and destructive I was to brief such stories. But these stories did not come from me or my team. They came from those trying to destabilise No10 and generate hostility for me and my team.
They worked. These stories were counterproductive to my goals because they spooked Boris into an instinctive tack back to ‘do things today to keep officials happy’, so cunning officials would use such episodes to pop in when I was in another meeting and use his temporary desire to chuck bones at people to get him to sign off things. They became known as ‘pop ins’. Sometimes he would call late at night, ‘Arghh Dom, errr afraid I succumbed to another popin and agreed XXX, probably a bad idea though in retrospect eh, could you sort it out, very sorry, never again’ etc.
And in 2020 (unlike 2019) I couldn’t just fire spads causing trouble and briefing things especially if they were friends of Carrie.
After Wave 1 I wanted to DO things on civil service reform but not TALK about it in the media (like planning reform).
It is true that I had frequent discussions with officials in which I said that the system had failed terribly in spring 2020, that these failures were the result of long-standing structural problems particularly with the quality of key people in key jobs and some key institutions, and there had to be huge changes.
But these discussions were constructive. And this was not the ‘extreme’ view pundits claim. It was shared by most of the officials in the PM’s office who had watched the collapse and supported serious change.
There are also thousands of articles that say I referred to Whitehall as ‘the blob’, even that I invented the term. False. I did not invent the term (which comes from America decades ago) and did not use it in No10 (Michael Gove did/does).
Why didn’t you brief that such stories weren’t true, and explain more what you were trying to do, wouldn’t it have helped if people understood better?
This almost certainly would not have worked.
Boris did not believe that I barely spoke to the media in 2020. Carrie was constantly telling him stories came from me.
Over and over I would say to him ‘what are you on about, not only is X not from me I’ve never spoken to that hack in my life, I keep telling you…’
His eyes would narrow. He didn’t believe me. Even when the story was obviously BAD for me and I would say ‘do you think I’m an idiot, this story makes my life worse?’ His eyes would narrow.
If I had done a James Baker and spent a significant amount of my time on the media and what I was really doing it would have increased the number of people screaming at him ‘see he’s out of control!’
It would have accelerated the collapse of relations between us.
Not speaking to the media had big costs but it at least meant I could focus on other things. If I’d spent time on the media I’d have worsened the situation with Boris AND lost that time to spend on other things.
Why didn’t you abolish the morning media meeting with Boris if it was so bad?
I tried and failed to do this many times in 18 months. It was impossible given his obsession was the newspapers. And others didn’t want to risk his wrath by siding with me openly in saying ‘PM bin it’. Whatever the agenda said he would ignore it anyway and start immediately with ‘Slacky what’s in the papers’ (James Slack was the official in charge of government communication, not a spad).
It was not such a problem in 2019 because then he was often in Self-Aware mode and mostly grasped we couldn’t bounce around in response to the media.
But from January 2020 it was a nightmare I couldn’t solve.
What was your role in the election?
On the way to my first day in No10 on 24 July 2019 I stopped off on the way and had a discrete coffee with Levido.
I told him: I want you to run the election which may come soon; I can’t do the huge task of planning and building for a possible election and sorting out CCHQ while trying to deal with No10; we both know that winning efforts need clarity about who is doing what, it should be clear you’re in charge of CCHQ; you, me, Lee and the PM will discuss the most critical issues but I won’t run around HQ confusing people about who the boss is and I’ll largely stay physically out the way in the campaign.
He was happy. Quite rightly he was desperate to avoid the problems of unclear authority that had plagued 2017. We agreed and we stuck to our deal. Though we inevitably had some disagreements they were not serious and we talked them through privately. I’m temperamentally more inclined to take risks than him and I think this tension was useful in various ways.
I’d done a lot of research in spring before going to No10, quietly driving around the country and doing focus groups and polling as I had in 2014-15, and we built a sophisticated model of the electoral map (below). The strategy and message were established in the first few weeks in No10. The whole point was to get this right at the start and execute, not to chop and change. The election campaign was a natural continuation of what we’d said July-October. In contrast Labour had been pulled all over the place on Brexit and a second referendum and their campaign wasn’t plausible to the voters.
In 2018-19 I’d organised to build the best predictive model of the electorate that was (legally) possible — a model that would predict individual seats and tell us where to target our efforts, money, PM visits, Facebook ads etc.
I organised a secret office next to the Spectator. I sat there with the data science team for the election. Only a handful knew about it. CCHQ people thought I was in No10 and No10 people thought I was in CCHQ. And I almost totally stopped talking to hacks as soon as the election was called.
I spent some time in No10 on e.g terrorism, floods and COBR, Trump, discussions on post-election, some deep state stuff. I came to CCHQ for Saturday chats with Levido and a small team and otherwise steered mostly clear though obviously was on calls a lot.
We had daily morning calls with me, Levido, Lee Cain, and Michael Brooks (pollster) then we did a Boris call with a slightly wider group.
My main involvement with the campaign was discussing the core issues with the core team including the polling/models, drafting some things for Boris (not much, mainly just phrases I wanted on the TV), preparation for debates and big interviews, persuading him to do things/not that we thought should/not happen, keeping him focused on the core message, keeping No10 tied in with what the campaign was doing, and troubleshooting on critical problems.
Overall the system ran as well as it could given the constraints.
From the early runs of the model in autumn it was clear we had the chance to seize seats the party hadn’t won in living memory.
If the party hadn’t been literally extinct in many parts of the country and if we’d had time to build the ground effort, we could have won by more.
While polls bounced around the model’s prediction of a majority was very stable. So was the ‘worst case scenario’ version where lots of parameters were tweaked to simulate systematic problems with the polls that favoured Labour. Even this model showed a steady small majority throughout.
Its prediction of the number of Tory MPs was off by 1 beating all others in the public domain including the exit poll.
Here is our final 2019 model predictions (left column), errors in brackets.
A screenshot I took of the dashboard at 6:37am on 13/12/19, showing how stable it was; on the right you can see that the probability of us NOT getting a majority was ~0
A myth of GE 2019: Boris’s ‘popularity in the Red Wall’
Boris has skills as a campaigner and communicator when and only when he is in Self-Aware Mode, which means when he thinks his career could get blown up in days/weeks.
In GE 2019 he was in that mode.
But he wasn’t the asset that many Tories and hacks believe.
If you want to be objective in analysing the reasons for the 2019 victory, it’s impossible to parrot the myth that it came because of his ‘personal popularity in the Red Wall’.
Throughout 2019 he was much less popular than is normal for a new PM and less popular than May was in 2017. (His shambles on Nazanin Zaghari and other cockups had seriously hit his popularity.) There’s lots of data like this graph.
The 2019 victory was a victory of strategy, message and execution — not personal popularity of the kind that sometimes is transformational, e.g FDR 1936, Reagan 1984 in USA). And we faced a poor candidate and a split party that had taken a long string of decisions that put it into a disastrous situation.
How accurate is Seldon’s book?
I haven’t read it.
He never asked to interview me. Obviously the media have all reported that he spoke to ‘every major player’. All normal!
A No10 official deeply involved in Brexit texted me: read Brexit chapters, basic errors, total joke.
I noticed three news reports about it.
1/ We negotiated with Varadkar in September because the Queen suggested it. Laughable.
2/ I actually ‘wasn’t interested’ in Brexit or government. One of the weirdest accusations ever made against me and only someone clueless about what happened could make it.
3/ He misquotes quotes he’s lifted from the internet, suggesting extremely shoddy standards.
One shred of truth in the stories that I supposedly ‘didn’t care about Brexit’ is that I did not involve myself in the minutiae of Brexit negotiations in 2020.
Because I always tried to apply my time where it was most valuable.
In 2019 I had to be on top of Brexit details and negotiations. It was the core priority of No10. There were many Whitehall process battles behind the scenes and a constant struggle to avoid Boris screwing things up.
But in 2020 we totally controlled the Brexit process. Official resistance stopped immediately the election happened. Frost and Lewis controlled the machine and I trusted them. There was an excellent team of officials and spads working together. And Boris was happy to let them get on with it.
So it would have been pointless and counterproductive for me to micromanage them.
Plus we quickly had covid!
I dealt with negotiation issues if they brought them to me, otherwise my Brexit focus was on all the other things that needed pushing against great resistance.
How hard is it to remove regulations?
Really really really hard.
It needs the sort of motivation and relentless followup that Tories cannot muster.
There was a set of rules about how researchers applying for funding for pure maths had to ‘demonstrate impact’.
Everybody who understood maths research knew these requirements a) were senseless, b) forced researchers to lie which is corrupting and wrong, c) wasted a lot of time.
I said in 2019 they should go. Does anybody anywhere disagree?
It took over a year. And over half way through when I was told it had happened and the person responsible actually thought she’d done it, it turned out that deep in the UKRI system someone had simply copied and pasted the dumb rules from place X to Y. So they could say they’d been ‘removed’ without actually removing them.
It took another few months to actually do this.
So it took the PM’s most senior adviser a year, many hours of many meetings, constant checking and followup to scrap one set of rules that literally nobody could defend.
And I was told recently they’ve been put back in! I don’t know if it’s true but it wouldn’t surprise me.
This is not a scaleable model for success.
This is why in summer 2020 I started a formal system to identify regulations and plan their removal or reform (see above). Like Project Speed we started weekly No10 meetings to drive the process. Again this is telling. You couldn’t leave BEIS and HMT to drive deregulation because they drive more regulation.
We left. This stopped.
Tories babble about growth.
They can’t even bin the dumb cookie pop ups.
Res ipsa loquitur…
Boris and Carrie
Why has he gone?
In 2020 I watched him crack up. He broke his deal with us. In our last conversations he was deranged, ranting about getting the Cabinet Secretary to give Carrie a job ‘with Kate to get her out of our hair’ then ranting that ‘I’m the fucking Fuhrer’ and he was sick of me telling him No — whether it was his mad bridge to Ireland, secret and illegal donations for his gold wallpaper, or his ‘money’s just digits in a computer’ attitude to taxes and spending. In spring 2021 he started lying about covid claiming there’d never been a Plan A for ‘herd immunity’ by September and therefore no shift to Plan B. Given herd immunity by September was the official DHSC plan, briefed as such by the government and personally by Hancock and senior officials across the media and explained in thousands of pages of government documents, this was, even by his standards, extraordinarily bad and stupid.
I and others always knew he was not fit to be PM but in 2019 we thought trying to control him was the best of a bad job (cf. below). In 2021 we decided to remove him and started a concerted effort to put him under constant pressure so he’d blow himself up. We were helped by officials in No10 and 70 Whitehall appalled by his behaviour. We were mainly helped by his combination of pathological lying and surrounding himself with courtier-fools.
He clearly had no intention of trying to honour the promises we’d made in the 2019 election. He dismantled or let Whitehall stop a large amount of what we’d started building in 2020. Practically everything in the media about what we were trying to build in 2020 is rubbish, if you’re interested in what we actually focused on and cared about then look below. Later in the year he broke a core 2019 promise not to raise taxes. Tory MPs disgracefully supported him. He now burbles, like many Tory MPs, about ‘growth’ and ‘lower taxes’. He was the one who stopped the plans for growth and lower taxes.
He’s trying to pretend he has been pushed out ‘as revenge for Brexit’. No. We pushed him out because he betrayed the Vote Leave plan to do Brexit seriously and started lying about why over 100,000 people died, most of them unnecessarily.
He’s trying to pretend Sue Gray was a conspiracy. No. Appointing her was a perfect sign of his uselessness in No10 and his ignorance of how Whitehall works. I wrote about how Tory MPs didn’t understand Sue Gray in 2014. His pathetic claim that appointing her was a sign of his ‘faith in the impartiality of our systems’ is a perfect example of how over 25 years Tory MPs have become totally unserious about real power and how Whitehall works.
He leaves disgraced and ranting nonsense.
What was he really interested in?
The issues Boris was consistently interested in and showed genuine enthusiasm over were:
funding more trains
funding more buses
funding more bike lanes
funding any buildings that he could interpret in Roman Emperor terms — ‘the hungry sheep look up and must be fed’, he said about voters and MPs
building a tunnel/bridge to Ireland (started off as a joke but because I treated it as a joke and refused to work on it and told everybody to kill it, ended up becoming a weirdly serious bone of contention between us, ‘you spend your time on your priorities, not my bridge to Ireland’ — ‘because it’s stupid and won’t happen and is undermining you in Whitehall’ — ‘I WANT MY TUNNEL’ etc)
I never saw him show sustained genuine interest in any other aspect of government.
As this sank in officials and spads realised that he saw the PM job as a glorified version of being Mayor with better perks.
Why did you ban Boris from seeing the head of the 1922 (reported from the Seldon book and other sources)?
I didn’t. I tried to stop him seeing Brady *alone*.
Why? Because he would say X to Brady then tell us a different story. It caused chaos.
This pathological lying was a general problem with him having one-one meetings. He could lie to X then lie to us (sometimes different versions to different people) and it would take a while for people to realise (if they did) and by then he could try to hide in a fog of confusion.
Like many things this has been presented as me trying to ‘control everything’, to ‘stop contact with MPs cos Dom hates MPs’ etc. No, it was just one small part of trying to stop his character causing chaos. If I had someone I could trust in the room then at least I’d know what his lies were later which was useful.
Actually I wanted him to spend more time with MPs to reduce the problems we had in Parliament. I wanted him to see Brady more and build a better relationship with him. I wanted him to do more dinners in the flat for MPs because they love going to No10. He didn’t want to. MPs bored him.
In the the leadership contest he knew that the top priority for most MPs is their promotion so without reservation he promised everybody whatever they wanted. This caused chaos afterwards when all sorts of people said ‘but he promised me X’. Boris would say ‘I don’t remember that’ and give a knowing smile at the room.
When cheating Tory MPs, Boris’s skills are top notch but the same skill applied to firing people means that those who enter his office to be fired leave thinking they’ve been promoted. Every time such a conversation happened, we begged him ‘either let one of us do it or at least sit in the room, you know you always screw it up, remember Reagan’s great line about how you don’t shoot your own horse’. ‘No no no, this time I promise it will be perfect, watch and learn Dom.’ Sure enough, another debacle.
[To be continued…]
In 2013 I wrote an essay on 1) the growing mismatch between a) the destructive scale and pace of crises such as pandemics/war and b) the abilities and performance of our leaders and institutions — a mismatch Sagan called ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power’ — and 2) what could be done to pre-empt disaster including new education for politicians and training in how to make decisions under extreme uncertainty.
In 2014 I wrote The Hollow Men about how incentives and culture in Whitehall program poor performance and anti-learning. I explained how both parties and the civil service systematically exclude those with crucial skills from crucial senior jobs and incentivise destructive behaviour. Most of the important destructive dynamics seen in Westminster’s covid response, including the failures of the Cabinet Office shaped by Heywood, were described here.
In 2017 I started a series on expertise and politics. E.g I discussed work by people like Kahneman and Tetlock on what we have learned about expertise in different fields. Some fields like fighting and physics have fast feedback loops for learning. Politics does not and elections do not generate adaptation in the way democratic theory hopes and predicts.
Urgently needed projects to lower the probability of catastrophes for humanity will benefit from considering why Mueller’s approach was 1) so successful and 2) so un-influential in politics.
These ideas, such as ‘concurrency’ (i.e building many vital sub-systems in parallel, rather than in series as governments normally do, to save time and money) had been forgotten by western governments (though are studied intensely in Beijing and Singapore) and were relevant to the success of the Vaccine Taskforce and failure of other projects. I described how the principles behind how Mueller made Apollo successful are like an anti-checklist for Whitehall (cf. from page 26 which is particularly depressing to re-read post-covid).
In 2018 I wrote On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy. This explored how relatively trivial investments can decisively accelerate science and technology if the management follows certain principles. Like Apollo, it is particularly interesting because 1) it is an example of extremely unusual performance, 2) many are interested in the products (internet, computers), 3) but almost nobody is interested in the management principles that explain its phenomenal success. This contrast is fundamental to understanding why learning is so hard for normal political/government institutions: the principles behind effective action and the people able to instantiate them are so hostile to normal bureaucracies, and are so psychologically hard for senior Insiders to cope with, that case studies of high performance are seen as irrelevant or dangerous. I also described how leaving in place the EU procurement system and EU regulation of science and technology would be dangerous for Britain. Covid exposed both problems. EU procurement and data (GDPR) rules had to be effectively suspended and there were no serious emergency processes to replace them.
In 2019 I wrote Project Maven, procurement, lollapalooza results & nuclear/AGI safety. It explored the crucial question, almost totally ignored by the media even after covid, of how the government can be a good buyer and how governments think about things like existential risk. I pointed out the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists piece on the potential for lab leaks to cause a pandemic: ‘pretty much nobody with real power pays any attention to all this. If those at the apex of power don’t take nuclear safety seriously, why would you think they are on top of anything?… Total failure is totally irrelevant to the senior civil service and is absolutely no reason to change behaviour even if it means thousands of people killed and many billions wasted.’ Westminster did not want to listen — instead they said that Heywood, former Cabinet Secretary, was a genius and we should all be assured when he promised us that Britain was the best prepared country in the world for a pandemic and Whitehall had nothing to learn from the private sector on procurement, digital, data and so on.
In 2019, a few weeks before the Prime Minister asked me to go to No10, I wrote High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’. This explored why the core institutions of the UK would fail in the next big crisis and what could be done. Having written about the Cabinet room unchanged since summer 1914 and the likely collapse of COBR, I then had to sit through the collapse of COBR in the 1914 Cabinet room, hitting x2 x2 x2 on my iPhone, scribbling numbers on a white board and saying ‘so at this rate the NHS will be broken in X days’.
In January 2020, after the election, I wrote a blog, Two hands are a lot, to start hiring different sorts of people with different skills — including data and project management. In it I wrote, ‘There is a huge amount of low hanging fruit — trillion dollar bills lying on the street’ if we could improve broken political institutions. Westminster howled with laughter at the idea that data scientists and great project managers combined with changing Whitehall ‘HR’ policies could exploit trillion dollar bills hiding in plain sight. Tragically the trillion dollar bill was already lying there on the pavement, playing on the news, and a few weeks later tens of thousands died for lack of data, the skills to interpret it, and great procurement and project management skills. Though my hiring/reform efforts were too late to avert disaster, some of those I started hiring in January played vital roles in the crisis and helped save lives. We created the Analytical Private Office in No10 to embed crucial, but previously unavailable, skills in the PM’s private office. Just as Red Teams have often been ignored, having the right skills/advice cannot guarantee decision-makers will act sensibly (cf. 22/9/2020) but at least it gives us a chance.
What books do you recommend?
Re the Ukraine war I particularly recommend Come and See (Иди и смотри) about the eastern front in World War II where they are fighting again now. Warning: it’s truthful and realistic therefore truly horrific. The director escaped Stalingrad across the river as a child and saw such horrors himself. Also watch the most popular Russian TV show ever broadcast, Seventeen Moments of Spring.