Conservative MPs were told to dismiss Dominic Cummings as a bitter man out for “revenge” after he dropped another ton of “domshells” on Boris Johnson in his remarkable interview with the BBC last night. The party line to take: Cummings had said it all before in seven hours of evidence to MPs. It wasn’t true; there was lots of fresh meat.
In a courtroom, Cummings would be a discredited witness because of his trip to Durham during lockdown – the reason why the public are more inclined to believe Johnson than him. They shouldn’t be. His disastrous Barnard Castle trip does not invalidate Cummings’ testimony. Nor does his agenda; he freely admitted he wants to get Johnson out, saying “the sooner he goes the better”.
Cummings’ diatribe matters because he lifts the lid on Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He is giving us a precious, if self-serving, view from someone in the room when the big decisions were made last year. Normally, we get only unsatisfying crumbs, nods and winks and denied speculation while the key players are still in power.
We have to wait years for their memoirs, and something closer to the truth, though mostly self-serving. (After the New Labour era ended, spin doctors admitted to me they regularly denied my contemporaneous reports about tensions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown even though they knew they were true.)
It matters that Johnson suggested in a WhatsApp message the over-80s were not worth locking down the economy for, and said: “I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff.” His friends claim our columnist prime minister often uses colourful and provocative language in private to provoke debate. But what if Johnson is not buying current warnings from his medical and scientific advisers that the NHS could soon be overwhelmed after his risky decision to relax England’s remaining restrictions while cases are rising? It would be true to form.
It suits Johnson allies to portray Cummings as an egotistical maverick and lone wolf. The former is right but not the latter. Many of his criticisms will be echoed in a book published tomorrow by Sage member Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, and Anjana Ahuja – Spike: The Virus vs The People – The Inside Story. They include the consequences of delaying lockdown last autumn; the abject failure of the government machine and the need for the public inquiry to start immediately rather than next spring so lessons can be learned quickly.
That inquiry will likely hear evidence from others also in the room backing up Cummings’s claims about Johnson. It may well reinforce his fundamental, deeply damaging theme of a leader who put his own interests above those of the country. Just one example: Cummings says one reason the PM ignored his scientists’ advice for a circuit-breaker lockdown last September was that Keir Starmer had proposed one; he “felt it would be politically disastrous just for him to suddenly admit that Starmer had been right”.
Similarly, Farrar describes as “unforgivable” the political decisions at this “darkest moment of the pandemic”. He argues the deaths in the first three months of this year were “avoidable” because UK epidemic was “left to continue its upward trajectory” and the conditions for the arrival of new variants fostered.
Cummings is less convincing on other issues and does try to rewrite – as well as draft – history. Although he candidly admits no one knows whether leaving the EU will be proved right, he claims he never thought Remainers were traitors. That doesn’t square with booting pro-EU Tory MPs like Kenneth Clarke and Amber Rudd out of the Tory party, a dramatic change for the worse.
Cummings has inverted the normal relationship between politician and adviser. He told Laura Kuenssberg he and Johnson were “using each other” and, in his most astonishing revelation, admitted discussing a plan to oust Johnson within days of his thumping victory at the 2019 election.
This gives his game away: for Cummings, it was always about furthering his personal aims, not those of elected politicians. He helped install and then worked for a PM he knew was unfit for the job, an empty vessel with no plan he viewed as useless without someone “pulling the strings”.
Brexit might be “done” but Cummings believes he is not. He is thinking about either starting a new party (not a good plan under first-past-the-post, as Change UK discovered) repeating his takeover of an existing one (they would see him coming and man the barricades) or, more realistically, creating a network of super influencers.
Cummings has already changed the course of history in a way most politicians could only dream of doing. However, he will probably be viewed by the system he is still hungry to destroy as too toxic and dangerous to get the chance to try again.
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