Dominic Cummings has failed to make his charges against Boris Johnson stick

The most serious charge the former chief adviser can level against the prime minister is that he thought about doing something unethical but didn’t

John Rentoul
Saturday 24 April 2021 13:05
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Boris Johnson confirms he will publish communications with James Dyson

Dominic Cummings uses a lot of colourful words about the prime minister: “unethical” (twice), “foolish”, “possibly illegal”, “almost certainly broke the rules”, and “below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”. But what, exactly, does he say Boris Johnson has done wrong?

Three things. First, Cummings says the prime minister has, through Jack Doyle, his director of communications, falsely accused him of leaking. This seems to be what prompted Cummings’s furious blog post, and he devotes the first three-quarters of it to the subject.

It is all a bit “he said she said” and “he was mean to me” – of interest as gossip, but hardly important. Cummings is probably entitled to feel aggrieved, because it does seem unlikely that he would have leaked the text exchanges between the prime minister and Sir James Dyson. Not least because they show Johnson in a good light, “shifting heaven and earth”, as he put it in the Commons, to get ventilators built at the time, a year ago, when everyone agreed that was the urgent priority.

Cummings is also still smarting at being accused of leaking the decision on the second lockdown last October, but everyone has forgotten what that was all about – which is why Cummings has to remind us that it is “known in the media as ‘the chatty rat story’”.

He tries to make it sound as if it matters by calling it “a leak that affected millions of people”. Well, it affected them in that they were confused to read about the new lockdown before it was formally announced, but to claim, as Cummings goes on to do, that it “caused serious harm to millions” is a bit much. It would be interesting to see the cost-benefit analysis on which Cummings the data scientist bases that claim.

The second allegation of wrongdoing made by Cummings against the prime minister is that he thought about calling off the inquiry into the “chatty rat” leak – when it turned out that the chief suspect was Henry Newman, a political adviser in No 10 and a friend of Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancee.

Cummings says Johnson was “very upset” and recounts their conversation, complete with stage directions: “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie as they’re best friends … [pause] perhaps we could get the cabinet secretary to stop the leak inquiry?”

No 10 sources are now insistent that Newman was not the leaker – although they have yet to put that on the record – and the inquiry seems to have run into the sand rather than being called off, which is what usually happens to leak inquiries. As Tony Blair said about the Dyson leak, “I find it hard to get worked up about this.”

We are left, then, with the third of Cummings’s charges, which is that Johnson planned to “have donors secretly pay for the renovation” of the No 11 flat. If the prime minister had gone ahead with that plan it would indeed have been unethical, foolish and contrary to the rules requiring the disclosure of political donations. But he didn’t. He announced yesterday that he would be paying for the refurbishment himself – or, at least, that part of it that cost more than the £30,000 annual allowance that has been available to all prime ministers.

Cummings says: “I refused to help him organise these payments.” He was quite right to do so, and it is outrageous that Johnson even considered it. But I do not believe that he would have got away with it. The civil service would have required any such payments to be published. In any case, the story that Johnson was considering such a plan was leaked to the Daily Mail – leaking often being a good, democratic and public-spirited activity.

We should be clear that what was wrong about Johnson’s plan was the secrecy, not the funding. As a taxpayer, I would be delighted to have a Conservative donor pick up the bill for doing up the prime minister’s flat in that historic building. But, obviously, we should know about it.

So the most serious charge that Cummings can level against his former boss is that he thought about doing something unethical but didn’t. Coming from someone who advised the prime minister to suspend parliament to try to stop it blocking Brexit, and who gleefully allowed journalists to think that the prime minister might break the law that did temporarily block Brexit, I would go for a Scottish legal verdict and say of Cummings’s charges: “Not proven.”

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