Who is the most powerful person round the Cabinet table of whom the public has never heard? A glance down the official list of ministers reveals a dozen contenders who cannot yet be described as household names.
But most of these are unlikely, outside and sometimes even inside their departments, to be very powerful. At the bottom of the list comes a quartet headed “Also attends Cabinet”, including “Ben Gummer MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General”.
At the age of 39, he is the youngest person at the Cabinet table; and among the relatively obscure, he could also be the most powerful. For when the Prime Minister wants a problem fixed, a deal brokered between recalcitrant departments, she will very likely turn to Gummer, and dispatch him from the morning meeting to knock heads together, or persuade them to be reasonable.
Alert readers may have noticed, on Monday of this week, a reference to him in The Times’s Red Box:
“The UK Cabinet is on a war footing. At last week’s meeting almost the whole 90 minutes was taken up with a lengthy discussion about how to save the Union. Each minister was told to find ways to make the case against Scottish independence in their own policy area. ‘Everyone around the table wants the Union to work and stay together,’ No 10 said. Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office minister, well-liked in Downing Street, is co-ordinating the fight.”
On a war footing! Well-liked! Co-ordinating the fight! That is the language, if not of power, then certainly of influence. Gummer enjoys the confidence of May and her advisers, who describe him as “first-class”.
His responsibilities are so extensive that they induce in those of us made of less stern stuff feelings of faintness, even of despair. Gummer is tasked with ensuring that the 544 manifesto commitments which the Conservatives entered into at the general election in 2015 are fulfilled. I have not, by the way, checked that implausible-sounding number.
The Cabinet Office does implementation: blue skies thinking is left to the Policy Unit, headed by John Godfrey, once a special adviser to Douglas Hurd at the Home Office, and to the Policy Board, which George Freeman MP recently explained to ConHome.
On 16th December, the Cabinet Office published its Single Departmental Plan, in which it summed up what it is about:
“The Cabinet Office and Number 10, alongside HM Treasury, form the government’s corporate centre, co-ordinating policy and promoting efficiency and reform. Our purpose is to make government greater than the sum of its parts by providing challenge, support and expertise. In doing this we must focus only on what is most efficiently and effectively done at the centre. This includes supporting the Prime Minister, co-ordinating intelligence and security, leading digital transformation, providing expert support to departments and agencies and improving Civil Service capability and effectiveness.”
Gummer, it seems, is to be a combination of Francis Maude, who from 2010 drove forward the digital transformation and efficiency work of the Cabinet Office, and Oliver Letwin, who was David Cameron’s trouble-shooter, and also intervened in many areas which although not visibly troubled, required attention.
But Gummer is Maude without the acerbity, and without various reforms which the Civil Service unions really hated. When Maude was once asked how many permanent secretaries had left since he started reforming the Civil Service, he is said to have replied: “Not enough.” His successor in 2015, Matt Hancock, was regarded with dismay by Maude’s cadre of digital enthusiasts.
Gummer is also Letwin, but without the wider remit the latter had as Head of Policy throughout Cameron’s leadership of the party from 2005-16.
The confident spirit in which Gummer has entered into his great responsibilities can be seen from the speech he gave earlier this month to Reform, in which he insisted that “to govern is to serve”; lamented that “the interface between government and people has become increasingly fraught”; and went on to explain the EU referendum result in those terms, for it was –
“not just a broad commentary on the way that people felt about the European Union, but what the European Union represented to people. And that wasn’t just a reaction to the European Union itself; it was to government. It was to the state of being. It was a question, really, saying: ‘Are you content with the status quo?’ Unsurprisingly, some parts of the country were content, but large parts otherwise came back with a resounding answer, which was ‘no’.”
He had himself been an ardent Remainer, who warned, when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove came to campaign in his constituency of Ipswich, that “Brexit would see jobs lost in Ipswich, whereas if we remain in, families in Ipswich will be better off”.
Gummer was deeply upset by Leave’s victory, but is a pragmatist who has come to terms with the result by treating it as a stimulus to the improvement of relations between the British people and its servants, the British government. One of his many roles is to ensure that departments are properly prepared for Brexit.
There is no doubt who Gummer is there to serve. As he remarks in a characteristic passage:
“I think probably the most important data challenge that we have ahead of us, we will be using data in a new way in the Prime Minister’s Race Disparity Audit, which I am supervising and will be releasing later in the year, where we’ll be releasing all data which relates to race disparity on the most granular basis that we possibly can, in a way that will challenge government and the public, in a way that government and public has been probably reluctant to challenge itself ever before.”
“Granular” is a favourite Gummer word, used to indicate technocratic grip. But who is this champion of modernity and equality, and how has he risen so fast and with such sure-footedness to his present eminence?
He turns out to be a reassuringly traditional figure, who illustrates the valuable role which the hereditary principle continues to play in public life.
His father is an eminent environmentalist who sits in the Upper House as Lord Deben, but was better known as John Selwyn Gummer, who served as Conservative MP for Lewisham West from 1970-74, and for Eye, which became Suffolk Coastal and contains the lovely River Deben, from 1979-2010.
Gummer the Elder, born in 1939, was party Chairman at the time of the Brighton bomb. He helped draft Margaret Thatcher’s speeches and told her biographer, Charles Moore: “What she liked best was being defiant, so it was one’s job to find something for her to be defiant about.”
Gummer the Younger, born in 1977, works for the second woman to become Prime Minister, and must have learned much about politics from his father. In the words of one observer, “He’s got his father’s brains without his high voice and occasional lapses into silliness.”
The most embarrassing of those lapses occurred in 1990, when as Agriculture Minister he fed a beef burger to his four-year-old daughter, in order to reassure the public during the BSE crisis. One doubts whether Gummer the Younger will try a stunt like that.
There are people in every walk of life, and certainly among Conservative politicians – Sir Nicholas Soames, Nick Hurd and Maude himself leap to mind – who have benefited from parental experience of the same calling.
Michael Oakeshott defended, in his great essay Rationalism in Politics, first published in 1947, the passing on of
“the nuances which compose the tradition and standard of behaviour which belong to a great profession…the Rationalist never understands that it takes about two generations of practice to learn a profession; indeed, he does everything he can to destroy the possibility of such an education, believing it to be mischievous. Like a man whose only language is Esperanto, he has no means of knowing that the world did not begin in the 20th century. And the priceless treasure of great professional traditions is, not negligently but purposefully, destroyed in the destruction of so-called vested interests.”
Ben Gummer’s grandfather, Canon Selwyn Gummer, was an Anglican priest, and Ben is fortunate to have been inducted as a child into one of the great Anglican traditions. As he himself remarks, in one of the admirable blogs which he addresses to his constituents:
“The English choral tradition is one of our great cultural gifts to the world – to my mind every bit as important as the Italian Renaissance masters, French cookery, German classical composers or Russian novelists…I know this more intimately than most, because I was a boy chorister at St John’s College in Cambridge. It is still the thing I am most proud of having done in my life, because it gave me the opportunity to be a musician at a very high professional level and to learn the rigour and excitement that comes with that. It was hard work, especially for a little boy – but it taught me things that I would never otherwise have learned and gave me experiences that have formed me. All of this makes me a passionate supporter of our choirs, because I know what being in a choir can do for a boy or girl, no matter what their background.”
His education continued at Tunbridge School, and at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he took a First in History. He has written a history of the Black Death, The Scourging Angel, which Noel Malcolm described as “highly impressive”.
In 2007, he was selected as the Conservative candidate in Ipswich, a seat which had been Labour since 1992 and was at that point held by Chris Mole with a majority of 5,322. In 2010, Gummer won the seat by 2,079 votes, which in 2015 he increased to 3,733.
In his maiden speech, Gummer enjoyed quoting from a biography of one of Gladstone’s brothers, who was also an Ipswich MP:
“He took no strong independent line such as would anger his father but accepted his minor role in the scheme of things.”
Gummer’s roles were at first minor. In 2013, he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who told ConHome: “I’m full of admiration for Ben Gummer. He is amazingly accomplished and wrote a good book on the Black Death. He has a wife who’s a stunningly beautiful barrister. He lives modestly in London and Ipswich.
“His parents are so Europhile they make Michael Heseltine look like Norman Tebbit. His father preaches the gospel of climate change and the gospel of Europe.
“Ben is in every respect a less evangelical presence. He was deeply upset by the result of the referendum but has resolved to put his shoulder to the wheel. He is highly intelligent.
“When I was removed as Education Secretary, he wrote me an elegant and moving eight pages of foolscap letter.
“When I joined the Brexit campaign, it was for him bit like discovering that one of your colleagues who you thought spent the evenings reading Kant and Trollope was actually a leading football hooligan.
“He will be a boon to Theresa May because he has a phenomenal appetite for hard work. He is not a swot.”
Gove observed that Gummer aspires to be prisons minister, said this was role for which his combination of compassion and intellectual rigour would suit him, but added that May could find his services too useful to dispense with him.
A person employed by a utility which Gummer lobbied on behalf of his constituents was less flattering: “I find him slightly tricky. He has quite a marginal seat and was desperate to show what he was doing for the local economy. Presentation got in the way – he wanted his photo in the East Anglian Daily Times. Not as odd as John Redwood.”
Gummer won his spurs while working after the 2015 general election as a junior health minister. A close observer says: “He stood out because he was very calm, very clear-minded, and actually got things done – which is incredibly difficult at the Department of Health.
“He likes and gets on with officials, which is incredibly important in what he’s doing now. And he’s incredibly hard-working and conscientious, so he does his homework, which is not universally the case.
“I was completely amazed how Theresa May spotted him. It was so clever of her to know. He’s a doer – not a blue-skies person.
“I find he’s distressingly young. But he’s grown up.”
That surely is a sufficient weight of compliments to heap upon Gummer’s head. For the Prime Minister, for himself, and for the country, there are still plenty of things which could go wrong.