The Ear Whisperers

The Ear Whisperers

John Lloyd
John Lloyd
11 min read

Advisors to rulers, wrote Machiavelli in his Discourses, would achieve their best results by “putting their case with moderation instead of assuming responsibility for it, and by stating one’s views dispassionately and defending them alike dispassionately and moderately—so that, if the city or prince accepts your advice, he does so of his own accord, and will not be seen to have been driven to it by your importunity.”

Advising rulers has been dangerous in past times, including Machiavelli’s. In the same essay (“On Giving Advice”), he instances the Turkish sultan, Selim, who invaded Syria and Egypt on the recommendation of his advisor, and though victorious, lost the greater part of his army to pestilence and famine. Furious, he had the advisor executed. Not giving advice could be as perilous. Perseus, king of Macedonia, was defeated in war against a Roman army, and escaped with just a few of his court. One of these began to tell the king (who could not have been in a good mood) that his defeat had been caused by the many mistakes he had made. Inflamed, Perseus cried, “Traitor, for you have delayed till now to speak of what I cannot undo!”—and killed him on the spot.

Machiavelli (1467–1527) was himself a senior official and advisor to the republican rulers of Florence, so he felt something of the wrath of princes—he was imprisoned for a few months and tortured by the Medici family when, after a time in exile, they returned to their city. He never again held high office. Great kings and princes had advisors for centuries before Machiavelli, but the books he wrote when out of power—Discourses, The Prince, Art of War—were the first attempts to sketch, systematically and at length, how rulers should govern if they wanted to retain power and popularity. Advisors involved in policymaking must stress the responsibilities of power in a polity where the people needed to be convinced of the benefits of rule, not merely cowed by it.

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Advising the powers that be has come a long way in style since then, but not so far in content. Advisors are not usually killed for offering bad advice today—except in North Korea, where Kim Jong-Un is reckoned to have had around a dozen very senior officials executed since 2014 (one, reportedly, by mortar fire, another by flame-thrower). Advisors are, however, often sacked, and if they have been close to the ruler, their dismissal often occasions intense media speculation and commentary—particularly if they then divulge the faults and worse of their former boss in public.

Dominic Cummings was fired as advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November 2020, and is now delighting the media with mortifying revelations of his former boss’s alleged behaviour and private conversation. Most recently, he used a lengthy interview with the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, to further embarrass Johnson and his government with fresh allegations of incompetence during the COVID crisis. Cummings is among the most intriguing of contemporary advisors—highly intelligent, full of ideas, passionate to effect change for the betterment of his country and its society (as he sees it), yet so extreme in his methods that he burns up those around him, and has to be dispensed with by the leader who might benefit most from his advice. (About Cummings, more in a moment…)

Machiavelli’s clear preference was for an advisor to be principled, believing in his advice and stating it clearly, but not importunate. The advisor’s client should grasp the meaning and force of the advice, act upon it, and enjoy the praise if it is seen to be successful, and the blame if it is not. In many countries, the leader has such a figure at his or her ear. Uwe Corsepius, an economist by training and a senior European Union official, was—until recently—German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s advisor on European issues. He offers an outstanding example of the conduct Machiavelli recommended. Last June, Politico‘s Matthew Karnitschnig wrote that “few outside the machine room of European politics are likely to have heard of Uwe Corsepius, but in the halls of Brussels and in capitals across the Continent, the mere mention of his name stirs a combination of fear, anger and admiration.”

Since, in Merkel’s time, Germany has occupied the unofficial but universally recognized leadership role in the EU, Corsepius was not just advising his Chancellor, he was exerting influence on all other EU administrations. He was the main persuader of those member countries reluctant to give grants (rather than loans) to governments in Southern Europe considered by the northern EU states, including Germany, as spendthrift. In so doing, he aroused the anger of those reluctant to go along with a policy that they—and their constituents—feared would bring a common EU fiscal policy a step closer. On the other hand, he has consistently poured cold water on French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious plans for European integration—plans now retired for the duration of COVID, but likely to re-emerge in more modest form.

That now-perennial debate—between a more integrated and powerful EU, and governance centred in nation states—was the shell-pitted no-man’s-land in which Corsepius had to live. The compromise he managed to broker (a mixture of grants and loans to the hardest hit economies) contributed to the survival of the EU at a moment of crisis. The Union has been rendered fragile by a sluggish vaccine rollout and buffeted by immigration, while pan-continental unity has been undermined by the refusal of Poland and Hungary to follow the political lead of Brussels and by the financial and trade problems thrown up by Brexit, which is proving to be a difficult ongoing process rather than a single conclusive event.

Macron has had several advisors over the four years of his presidency, but his confidence in his own judgment and intellect tends to relegate them to a supportive role—ideas are not discussed and developed by others, at least, not in critical areas of policy or political positioning. Like most leaders during the plague, Macron has changed his mind several times on lockdown and opening up. And although he has many scientists and medical experts at his disposal, he has spent hours poring over the details of the virus and its spread in an attempt to master them himself. According to one report, he has become increasingly hostile to lockdowns, irrespective of medical advice: “Professor Jean-Francois Delfraissy, the head of the scientific council Macron set up at the beginning of the pandemic, now refrains from recommending restrictive measures ‘because he feels like the more he tells Macron he should lock down, the less he will do it,’ according to a high level official at the health ministry.” Such is the price of a president who knows he is very clever.

The opposite of the discreet or the disregarded advisors are those who become more important than their boss. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s advisor on communications (and beyond), left the job in 2003, in part because he felt that he, rather than the man he served, “had become the story.” Several important advisors prolong their time near the spotlight by continuing to live off their job in the corridors of power even after they quit. Campbell published highly readable and interesting diaries, and continued to advise Blair in a semi-freelance way after he ceased to advise the government in an official capacity. Even today, he retains a high profile in the media, and the videos he posts on his Instagram channel, in which he free-associates about current affairs as he walks home from his daily dip in a Hampstead bathing pond, continue to attract a large audience.

Vladimir Surkov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin from 2013 to 2020, sees himself as the “creator of Putinism.” This is surely an exaggeration, although he did develop Putinist ideas like “sovereign democracy,” which essentially just means open-ended Putin rule supported by highly manipulated elections. Surkov is a Kremlin-approved bohemian who came to believe that even though post-Soviet Russia had more “diversity” than the Soviet Union, it had to remain an authoritarian state. As he put it, “Putin did not abolish [democracy]. He married it with the monarchical archetype of Russian governance. The archetype is working. It is not going anywhere … it has enough freedom and enough order.” Surkov insists that he left office of his own free will, but has also admitted that advisors can become “odious … these people have to be replaced so that they stop irritating people.” He irritated people because he made himself a public figure—he, too, became the story.

The chaotic one-term presidency of Donald Trump was a uniquely narcissistic four-year exercise supported by an obsequious court of flatterers and hangers-on. But in the early months, his inner circle also included Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist until he was fired half-way through the Trump administration’s turbulent first year. The President had evidently become weary—and perhaps also jealous—of the press attention Bannon was attracting. Bannon also made the unpardonable miscalculation of picking a fight with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who also served as presidential advisors. (According to reports, Bannon made it known that Ivanka is “dumb as a brick.”)

Bannon was not content with being an advisor in the Machiavellian mould—he had his own plans for America, and hoped to use Trump as a vehicle for their rapid enactment. This didn’t work in part because, arrogant and dishevelled in appearance and mind though he is, Bannon did in fact have a sense of direction. He had developed a political philosophy of sorts, according to which, the so-called “boomer” generation that came of age in the 1960s had abandoned “the tried-and-true values of their parents (nationalism, modesty, patriarchy, religion) in favour of new abstractions (pluralism, sexuality, egalitarianism, secularism).”

Trump, on the other hand, once he recovered from the surprise of actually becoming president, seemed interested only in using the White House as a bully pulpit from which to wage personal vendettas, and as a showcase for his all-consuming desire for adulation. That he also managed to be a conduit for the frustrations of nearly half of America was almost incidental. Trump was able to give voice to some of Bannon’s concerns—especially the nationalism—and he could connect with those Americans who felt the liberal elite was disrespecting them, since he felt himself to be the victim of this same mistreatment. And as a rhetorician, he was unusually adept at flattering and rousing audiences. But he depended on his daughter and her husband for non-combative support, and trusted them because they were family. Bannon, who made headlines wherever he went and whatever he did and was careless in expressing his contempt for those around Trump, had to go. As Time magazine commented, “he is not one to cede the stage, the spotlight, the megaphone to Trump, and Trump has never learned to share.”

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In Britain, Dominic Cummings shares Bannon’s contempt for much of the boomer generation and also harbours ambitions to remodel politics and society. And when he was fired as chief advisor to Boris Johnson just before Christmas last year, he too claimed that close family—Johnson’s then-fiancée-now-wife, Carrie Symonds—to be the moving spirit behind his departure. His style is also dishevelled, though in a different key. He is never photographed in a tie or suit, but he is not unshaven, and his remaining hair is cropped short, unlike Bannon’s flowing grey mane. (With Cummings, the impression is that the fewer smart or fashionable clothes, the less hair, the better, since both demand care-time.)

He is, however, at least as serious, and better (at least until his sacking) at identifying causes he can win. He is widely reported to have been the strategic genius behind the successful Brexit referendum campaign, for which he coined the slogan “Take Control” (later fleshed out to “Take Back Control”). It was here that he graduated from being a controversial but still largely unknown backroom operative to the ascribed status of the Right’s indispensable master of strategic planning. His approach—contempt for established routines (and people)—was first put at the service of Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014. Here, Cummings developed the idea of what he calls an Odyssean education. According to the historian of ideas, Stefan Collini, his method “starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them.” This, it is hoped, will produce within future governments:

1) a number of outstanding scientists capable of bringing fundamental science to bear on policy formation, and 2) a general level of scientific and numerical literacy such that MPs, officials, journalists and others can understand basic scientific discoveries and their significance. The overall aim should be to make the UK “the leading country for education and science.”

These are fine aims (and they differ significantly from those of Bannon, who prefers the wisdom handed down by previous generations), but Cummings is not a textbook; he is, by most accounts, a hard man to cope with, whether as an assistant, a colleague, or a boss. The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, refused to work with him and even went so far as to describe him as a “career psychopath.” Others, including the former Labour MP and leading Brexiteer Gisela (now Baroness) Stuart, found his rational approach to decisions helpful, and saw him as “a force that helps you make good decisions because he challenges you.” A columnist who claims to be a “friend”—Sarah Vine of the Daily Mail, soon to be ex-wife of Michael Gove—balanced recognition of his apparently rebarbative personal behaviour with an acknowledgement of his strengths:

Dom’s saving grace, I always felt, was that he stayed away from front-line politics, preferring to get his hands dirty in the engine-room of power and leave the shiny Sir Humphrey stuff to others. But something about the past few years, in the aftermath of Dom’s Brexit triumph and the ongoing psychodrama between him and the Prime Minister, seems to have changed all that.

The experience does seem to have changed him. It is notable that he gave his first big media interview since leaving government to the BBC, an institution he has always despised. Exiled from the summit of power, Cummings has used his access to the media to pour scorn on Boris Johnson, and to disclose private conversations and communications in which the Prime Minister reveals himself to be uninformed, callous, and unfit to lead the country. During the Kuenssberg interview, Cummings revealed that he and his allies were discussing how to replace Johnson almost as soon as the Conservatives won a huge majority in November 2019:

We were already saying, “By the summer either we’ll all have gone from here, or we’ll be in the process of trying to get rid of him and get someone else in as prime minister. … He doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be prime minister and we only got him in there because we had to solve a certain problem not because he was the right person to be running the country.”

The unapologetic arrogance and calculation is breathtaking, however much it accords with what many believe is true of Johnson. Who are the “we” who would rid the UK of a troublesome prime minister? And how would this removal be effected? With whom would he be replaced and upon what authority? If this were mere bravado, it would be contemptible enough. If it’s sincere, it amounts to a conspiracy by unknown forces to destabilise and end a premiership returned to office with a huge democratic mandate.

Cummings’s method is the antithesis of Machiavelli’s recommendation that an advisor behave “with moderation instead of assuming responsibility for [their case], and by stating one’s views dispassionately and defending them alike dispassionately and moderately.” For Cummings, there is no time to waste, no need for diplomacy and tact, and no point in suffering fools, gladly or otherwise—the war against the entrenched forces of reactionary obfuscation can only be waged by confrontation.

It is not only the comfortably conservative politicians (in all parties) and the incompetent bureaucrats with which Cummings, and radical advisors like him, fight. Accountability and the rule of law, great engines of slow change, are essential to democratic politics and an independent civil society. Understanding and assent are destroyed at the peril of both but they united in his ousting. Whatever the merits of his quarrel with Johnson, a paid advisor who sought the overthrow of the democratically elected leader he served had to go.

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.