Dominic Cummings, who modestly tells us that he only ever wanted to be called “assistant to the prime minister”, has resumed his attempt to force his former boss from office. He won’t succeed this time, either – but he may get him in the end.
He tried to bring Boris Johnson down in May last year, when he gave evidence for seven hours to the health and science select committees. It was an attempt to hold the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic in a single day on terms as unfavourable to Johnson as possible.
It failed miserably because, despite some colourful language about the prime minister’s incompetence being responsible for the deaths of thousands, Johnson – even in his absence – could rely on the defence that he had followed the advice of the government’s scientific advisers at all times. Cummings’s case was further weakened by his presence at the heart of government throughout the entire first phase of the pandemic.
Now Cummings has returned to the fray, with the long-promised blog post about potentially rule-breaking parties in 2020. He accuses the prime minister of telling “multiple lies” about parties before Christmas that year, and forcing and encouraging others to “tell the media untrue things”.
But he does not actually say what these lies and untrue things are, saying that what is worse is Johnson’s determination to “keep rubbish people in critical positions” and to encourage people to think “Covid’s over”.
Once again, Cummings has come up against a problem in his assault on the prime minister, which is that he was in the thick of it at the time. He was in the photo of the apparently rule-breaking party in the Downing Street garden on 15 May 2020. But he says he was in a meeting and that the terrace was – in effect – his office.
He then says that there was another gathering in the garden that was against the rules, which coincidentally he didn’t attend. It was against the rules because it was organised (by an unnamed “senior No 10 official”) as a “socially distanced drinks”. He says that he wrote in an email, so there will be a record of it, that this “seemed to be against the rules and should not happen”.
This is so far from being a slam-dunk case against the prime minister for allowing parties during lockdown that it is no wonder Cummings quickly switches his 5,000-word post to other matters. After a digression on the subject of how little journalists understand the power of civil service private secretaries in No 10, he turns to his main theme, which is that Johnson has no interest in preparing seriously for the next pandemic.
Cummings is always interesting and widely read on these kinds of subjects, and makes the case that, even if coronavirus didn’t come from a lab leak, security at labs doing dangerous research is weak – and most governments are badly placed to deal with the next crisis.
I suspect that he is unlikely to be more successful in making the case against Johnson this way, than any of the others he has tried so far. The Conservative MPs who can get rid of the prime minister are not interested in doom-mongering about future catastrophes any more than Johnson is.
The only part of Cummings’s latest blog post that is likely to get through to Tory MPs is a short paragraph near the start where he sets out some of the political fundamentals in the way he did so brilliantly as the brain behind the Leave campaign in 2016. He says: “The 2024 election means the Tories asking for 19 years and a fifth term. This request has never been granted in British democratic politics.”
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Now he has the attention of Tory MPs worried about holding on to their seats. “‘Time for change’ will be extremely powerful,” he tells them. “The fact that Starmer is a dud means the Tories do have a chance but only if there is a new PM with a great team that can figure out the right priorities and execute with ruthless skill, speed and focus.”
Leave aside all the nonsense about rule-breaking parties, and all the futurology about pandemic preparedness, this is a message that will sink in with the people who hold Johnson’s fate in their hands.
Cummings is a brilliant analyst of politics, and if the opinion polls confirm his view of Johnson as the next election approaches, Tory MPs will be looking to the prime minister’s former “assistant” for advice about how to install Rishi Sunak and an effective team around him to save the next election. Cummings may get his revenge – eventually.
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