Helen MacNamara and Dominic Cummings are supposed, by observers of the Downing Street machine, to be on opposite sides.
And it is true that MacNamara is the Cabinet Office official in charge of “propriety and ethics”, to whom Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, will delegate the task of conducting any inquiry the Prime Minister may yet be forced to order into whether or not Cummings broke the rules – though yesterday evening he told the Liaison Committee this would not be “a very good use of official time”.
Such Cabinet Office reports may calm the immediate storm, but do not always produce the result the Prime Minister wants. In December 2017, MacNamara’s predecessor, Sue Gray, published a report which did not entirely clear Damian Green, First Secretary of State and close supporter of Theresa May, of the charges made against him, so out he went.
It was said of Gray, profiled by ConHome in November 2017,
“She heads Whitehall’s equivalent of the Office of the Holy Inquisition. If Jeremy Heywood [the then Cabinet Secretary] is the Pope she leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She defines what is heretical…she is a steely enforcer of Whitehall authority.”
But although MacNamara can be trusted, within a wide discretion, to uphold the rules as they apply to Cummings, she is a different kind of person. In 2014, when she discussed “how women leaders succeed” at the Institute for Government, she spoke with enthusiasm about “the disruptive power of change” and how “crisis creates the opportunity to be disruptive”.
She recalled that after George Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer and she was charged with cutting the budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by 50 per cent, she was able “to massively change the dynamic in terms of women in the organisation”.
And in a relaxed way, she said “I like to fail”, and went on remark that excessive caution is a problem with the culture within the Civil Service:
“We don’t take risks, we don’t make mistakes, we don’t admit failure.”
There could, one guesses, be more in common between MacNamara and Cummings than is allowed for by the presumed opposition between her as a defender of the official machine and him as a reformer of it.
Like Cummings, MacNamara is no respecter of hierarchy. In the late 1990s, after reading history at Clare College, Cambridge, she set out to become a dot.com entrepreneur.
She revelled in the absence of hierarchy, and points to the large number of dynamic women who got involved, including her hero, Martha Lane-Fox.
And MacNamara reckons she was taking part in something highly significant. She believes the digital revolution is as significant as the industrial revolution, and is even now only just beginning.
But she insists she was “very bad” at being an entrepreneur,
“because I think you learn many things about yourself from failing and one of the failures I had is that I wasn’t really interested in money, and that actually is a very significant failing if you’re trying to run a business. I was interested in doing interesting things and having a nice time and working with people, and none of these things necessarily in and of themselves make you some money.”
In the early years of this century, the Civil Service launched one of its periodic attempts to attract more people from the private sector, and recruited MacNamara, who in 2002 went to the DCMS.
Here she was soon Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell. Women were “very powerful and able to do things” in the department: the Permanent Secretary was also a woman.
MacNamara was spotted as someone of unusual ability. She was involved in the Olympic bid. A Conservative minister with whom she had much to do during a later, extremely difficult project described her as “a perfect official, fair-minded, doesn’t play games, will always try to get at the truth, capable of bringing sense out of five-sided talks”.
He added that he had spent hundreds of hours with her, but had no idea of her personal politics. And he remarked that she had managed during this period to have four children, the youngest of them during her first stint at the Cabinet Office, from 2013-16.
Her husband, Alex Towers, also worked in the DCMS, became Director of the BBC Trust and is now Director of Policy and Public Affairs at BT.
In her first stint in the Cabinet Office, MacNamara was Director of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, which runs the Cabinet and Cabinet committees. Here she did “lots of brokering to try to smooth the process for collective agreement”.
Her function is to help the Government do what it wants to do, and one suspects she would like to help Cummings do what he wants to do, namely recast the Civil Service into an altogether more professional organisation, where talent is rewarded.
The minister quoted above considers it “extremely plausible” that she might ascend to the post of Cabinet Secretary. So too does Tim Shipman, who last weekend reported in The Sunday Times that she could one day take over from Sedwill:
“Helen MacNamara, the head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, who has clashed with Cummings over his treatment of special advisers, has also been handed a promotion that makes her Sedwill’s de facto deputy. McNamara’s elevation puts her in pole position to become the first female cabinet secretary. ‘She knows where all the bodies are buried because she has buried a lot of them for Boris,’ one official said.
“A senior Tory summed up: ‘The big picture is that Dom wanted to see the back of Sedwill and failed. He was trying to take control. The bottom line is that Sedwill kept his job and another senior civil servant was brought in. Dom also hates Helen McNamara and he’s ended up with her getting promoted.'”
It is perfectly true that MacNamara and Cummings clashed over his treatment of special advisers, whose terms and conditions she set out to regularise.
And it is possible that Cummings has made so many enemies among officials that she is among them. After all, her role is “to ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government”, and it would not be beyond the bounds of official ingenuity to indicate that he has somehow infringed those.
But she has spoken with sympathy of women who because “they don’t come from a very big loud Irish family” are “not going to be able to get a word in edgeways in a meeting.”
MacNamara is not loud, yet somehow she always gets a word in edgeways. She of all people would not be intimidated by Cummings.
If she had the chance, she might decide he had behaved so badly it was her duty to push him over the edge. But she might also decide life would be frightfully dull without him, and that the cause of Civil Service reform would be set back a generation.