Diary of a No. 10 misfit
I drafted the following on 5 February 2021, a week after leaving 10 Downing Street, having been there exactly one year as a Special Advisor, brought in by Dominic Cummings.
It was a diary intended for The Spectator magazine, but sensing the brewing fallout, and general turbulence to come of many senior staff leaving, I decided (I think in retrospect wisely) not to publish.
This is the draft as I sent it to the editor at the time. Enjoy.
The first thing that strikes you about Dom – my 8.30 p.m. January 2020 meeting to discuss becoming a special advisor – is that on giving him a page or two of paper, he stops conversation (cuts you off – ‘just give me a minute’) and reads it then and there. I’ve never known someone to do this. And yes, I know what you’re thinking: I am indeed someone who puts himself forward for a job with ‘You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends – frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all’ in the job advert. My secret to beating out 35,000+ fellow applicants? Just be the only one willing to wear a chastity belt along to your interview.
Whitehall is so fanatical about use of acronyms that over the course of the past year I’ve pioneered one of my own: OIG! – ‘only in government’. It’s intended as an expletive – something has just gone catastrophically wrong; so ample opportunity for daily use. You can think of it as a politer, government-customised version of FFS. With ‘minister’, ‘honourable’, ‘Lord’ and the like, government vocabulary all-around would benefit from a touch less tact. This said, wearing Invisalign (braces) to resolve a painful crooked tooth, it’s felt as though I’ve been entering No. 10 daily with a gum-shield. The only times I have worn a gum-shield in my life are: for rugby as a teenager and once, as an adult, trying boxing. This is fitting, for central government the past year has been equally full-contact, and I consider supplying everyone with a gum-shield upon entry would have been appropriate.
The greatest character trait I have learned from a year with Dom is humility. This might come as a surprise to those who know him only from media caricature, but it’s true. He is fearless in taking on lines of questioning that routinely expose absurdities – in areas he readily concedes to be looking at for the first time. ‘I’m going to lay out my argument, and you tell me why I’m wrong’ is a wonderful line of his I’ve commandeered. It allows one to be forthright in meetings with minimal repercussions, and to wilt in an argument (robustly put) when wrong. Do not be shy about aggressively asking elementary questions.
The most surreal part of the whole experience has not been, as you might expect, being sat around the Cabinet Room table on a near daily basis; nor walking through the front door of No. 10 each morning; nor even seeing the PM, chaperoned by Chris Whitty, on the way to deliver another press conference – surreal though all these things certainly are. It’s rather, being stood at a urinal next to a cabinet minister and learning, with a certainty which you hadn’t realised you lacked, that they do indeed pee too. Even Michael Gove.
Tips following a year in No. 10? First, wear a tie. I learned, by accident, that by doing so as a special advisor I often got mistaken for a civil servant, with gossip divulged to me that surely otherwise wouldn’t have been – before I’d had the chance to correct anyone. Second: if any reader dreams one day of a presiding role, they should prepare for it to be dire from day one. (Leaders that history remembers favourably – Churchill, JFK… – are those who respond well to crises, not those who most effectively implement their manifesto.) Third, courtesy of Sir Ed Lister: ‘Never assume anyone you think will have spoken to an obvious counterpart has done so.’ (On this occasion, the Mayor of London’s office having failed to pick up the phone to the Department for Transport.) That’s all I’ve got. It’s a tough gig, folks.
In 1975, New York City ran an ad: ‘You have to be a little crazy to live in New York, but you’d be nuts to live anywhere else.’ I consider this could well be repurposed for a new UK-government recruitment campaign: ‘You have to be crazy to work here, but you’d be nuts to work anywhere else.’ It has, of course, been the honour of a lifetime to serve in 10 Downing Street for a year but, being nuts, I’ve decided to step out AD (anno Domini) and start a next venture. My business partner and I intend to help people in setting up their own personal fellowships (think: your own small ‘Thiel Fellowship’). We’ll take care of all admin and leg-work, and help (more modest) donors directly support individuals they care about. Coming out of the pandemic, superb though Rishi and his close team are, we ought not to leave everything to HMT. Private citizens – perhaps none more warmhearted than readers of The Spectator – can do their part, too. To those interested, please visit [website no longer live*] for details. Your chance to help the country; no gum-shield required.
(*After a few months of testing, we ultimately decided not to pursue this venture.)
Much more serious:
My most recent digest highlights questions I consider should be put to our present PM about Ukraine and Nato:
It’s had 3x more email forwards than anything else I’ve published. Please read it if you haven’t already, and continue to share if you agree with the sentiment. (Especially ahead of the big Nato summit in a few weeks’ time.) We’re in dangerous times, and need to be asking more uncomfortable questions to ensure we’re on the most sensible path forward.