WHEN DOMINIC CUMMINGS, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser until last week, leaves a room, he likes to make a childish gesture: he pulls a pin out of an imaginary grenade, and tosses it over his shoulder. The man who engineered Brexit and pushed Mr Johnson to hold the election that won him an 80-seat majority while dragging the government into fights with Parliament, the civil service and its own party, has left Downing Street, and the place looks as if an explosion has hit it. Projects are hanging in the air. Functionaries are running around like headless chickens. The only person who can mend all this is another chief adviser.
More than most leaders, Boris Johnson relies on the people around him, for his positive qualities (optimism and enthusiasm) are counterbalanced by negative ones (disorganisation and drift). He would have been a rotten Mayor of London but for the arrival of competent advisers, notably Simon Milton. He needs a similar deus ex machina to rescue his faltering premiership. Mr Cummings provided Mr Johnson with political genius and intellectual energy, but he lacked most of the qualities a chief adviser needs.
Downing Street could always add to its exorbitant consultants’ bills and call in McKinsey to provide a few management bromides (“must be committed to transparency”) to identify the right person to replace him. But a better way would be to read a few books. Start with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”—the first book on politics to describe men as they are, warts and all, rather than as moralists would like them to be, and a wonderful source of eternal insights. Then imitate Machiavelli’s method and “step inside the courts” of previous leaders by reading lots of history.
Chief advisers fulfil all sorts of vital functions in today’s politics. They act as a counter-balance to the civil service and a filter for all those trying to bend a leader’s ear. But they also perform an important psychological service: they give their master or mistress somebody to talk to. The best advisers are almost invisible: those who appear in the papers are not doing their job properly. James Baker, chief of staff to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said that the key word in the phrase “chief of staff” was “staff”. There was no photograph in public circulation of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff and the author of “The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World”, during his first year in the job, so newspapers had to publish silhouettes of him.
But subordination to the boss doesn’t mean becoming a patsy. Chief advisers need to be able to correct their master’s weaknesses as well as magnify their strengths. Patrick Moynihan brought out the best in Richard Nixon by reminding him of Disraeli’s advice that the best governments consist of “Tory men and Whig measures”. Unfortunately there were plenty of other advisers around, such as John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, who were happy to bring out the worst in the president. David Gergen rescued Bill Clinton’s first administration from chaos by providing the young staffers who had run his presidential campaign with adult supervision. Mr Johnson needs both a Moynihan and a Gergen—someone who can provide both intellectual drive and adult discipline.
The modern Machiavelli has to be willing to prick ideological bubbles. There is nothing more dangerous for an organisation than self-congratulatory groupthink. Advisers need to be well versed in past mistakes so that they can probe their bosses’ ideas and plans for weaknesses before rivals or reality expose those flaws. At the same time, whenever hubris turns to despair, as it so often does in politics, they need to be able to put the babble of daily headlines into perspective. Machiavelli’s injunction that both princes and advisers should study history and “note the actions of great men” is even more germane today, when too many politicians study economics or, even worse, management science.
The ideal adviser needs to know when to pick fights and when to play nice. Machiavelli was right that change is dangerous because “he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new”. But too many Tories have come to believe that, because you can’t make progress without making enemies, the mere existence of enemies is a sign that you’re making progress. Demonising the establishment as a reactionary blob is less effective than co-opting its members by appealing to a mixture of their ambition and their better natures. Not all of the government’s ideas for universities, the civil service and the BBC are daft, and a little digging reveals that many insiders agree with some of them.
Finally, successful advisers also need to roam beyond Downing Street. One of the commonest complaints of prime ministers is that they grasp the levers of power only to discover that they are made of rubber: pull them and they bend rather than moving the machinery of government. This is not, as too many prime ministers conclude, because the levers are defective and the machinery needs to be re-engineered, but because in a pluralistic democracy power is widely distributed. Advisers need to help their bosses build coalitions across the political nation, supping not just with journalists, MPs and civil servants but also with city mayors, who rightly feel slighted by the London-focused political system.
Mr Johnson is currently engaged in a grand relaunch of his administration after a disaster-prone 11 months since the election. But none of his fine words about the green industrial revolution will mean a fig unless he can find a modern Machiavelli strong enough to drive policy forward and self-effacing enough to devote himself to the greater glorification of King Boris. The job description is a daunting one, but the successful candidate will have a chance to shape from the shadows the country in the wake of two of the biggest shocks, Brexit and covid-19, that it has received since the second world war. ■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “A modern Machiavelli”