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A poundshop Watergate

Monday 26 April 2021

The feud between Johnson and Cummings was always on the cards, and has entangled the whole government in a clash between two narcissists at the worst possible time


In June 1973, appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee, John Dean, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, disclosed a peculiar moment in one of his exchanges with the president.

“Very near the end,” Dean said, “[Nixon] got up out of his chair, went behind his chair to the corner… and in a nearly inaudible tone said to me he was probably foolish to have discussed [Watergate burglar Howard] Hunt’s clemency with [presidential aide Chuck] Colson. I do not recall that I responded. The conversation ended shortly thereafter.”

Dean’s clear suspicion that the president had been taping his conversations proved to be a bullseye. In July 1974, the US Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s invocation of executive privilege and ordered him to turn the subpoenaed recordings over for use in the criminal cases ensuing from the scandal. A fortnight later, the president resigned.

Small wonder, then, that Westminster and Whitehall are transfixed by the rumour that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser, may have audio evidence of conversations with senior ministers and officials – perhaps even with the prime minister himself. Are the recordings merely embarrassing or downright incriminating? Do they even exist? In the frenzy of claim and counterclaim, fought out in leaks to the media, and leaks complaining about leaks, it is hard to distinguish psychological warfare from substantial threat.

Most political scandals, of course, are erroneously compared to the fall of Nixon – if only by the application of the suffix “-gate” to almost all of them. But the idea that some of the most mortifying moments of Johnson’s premiership might shortly be available to download in full is too close to the bone for the PM’s allies. 

“You always have to remember that Dom loves to manipulate expectations and fears,” according to one Downing Street source. “That’s how he won the [Brexit] referendum, after all. So it’s probably just mind games.” Pause. “But what if it’s not?”

What, indeed? The emerging impression of a Poundshop Watergate is strengthened, too, by the furore over who, exactly, paid for the refurbishment of the Number 11 flat where the PM lives with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, and their infant son. 

Number 10 says that Johnson has stumped up the cash himself. But was the makeover originally subsidised by the Conservative Party, the cost covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow who apparently contributed £58,000 for this specific purpose last year?

True, the precise means by which the couple’s taste in interior decor was financed is scarcely on a par with the funds siphoned off from Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President to pay for the Watergate burglars’ legal expenses, political black ops and the dirty tricks known as “ratfucking”. Some sections of the media seem determined to blame Ms Symonds for everything that has gone wrong in this country since the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, which seems a slightly disproportionate response to a young mother wanting to do up the family home.

The question, of course, is how her betrothed – which is to say, the prime minister – went about fulfilling this particular wish. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, was conspicuously unable, or unwilling, to provide a comprehensive answer, saying only the rules had been “fully complied with”. This does not come close to explaining whether Brownlow’s money was used initially, and – if so – whether the party and PM complied with Electoral Commission regulations governing the reporting and use of donations.

In his suspiciously concise blogpost on Friday, Cummings had the following to say: “The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended. I refused to help him organise these payments.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this rather high-minded claim, until Truss dismissed it yesterday as “tittle-tattle”. As any Westminster-watcher knows, “tittle-tattle” is a surefire tell in the great poker game of politics – indicating that an allegation is almost certainly true, but that the politician in question does not wish to discuss it further.

The locus classicus is Gordon Brown’s description in 1998 of a book by the journalist Paul Routledge describing, in detail, the origins of his feud with Tony Blair, as “rumour, tittle-tattle and gossip”. It was at this precise moment that everyone could tell that Routledge had nailed the story.

In principle, Johnson is well-positioned to withstand a campaign of vengeance by the exiled Cummings, who was evicted from Number 10 in November, along with his fellow Vote Leave comrade, Lee Cain, who had been Director of Communications. According to yesterday’s Opinium poll, the Conservatives enjoy a commanding 11-point lead over Labour, and – for now – the PM seems to be immunised from serious political danger by the remarkable success of the vaccine roll-out.

What perturbs his more vigilant allies is precisely that we live in an age of asymmetric warfare, in which – to borrow the terminology used by the great counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen – apparently mighty “dragons” can be poisoned by smaller but deadly “snakes”. As one senior source puts it: “All I know about Dom is that it never ends well. It just never ends well.”

And it shows no sign of doing so. According to today’s Daily Mail, Johnson raged after a meeting in October about the second national lockdown: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” 

Something about the sheer violence and literalism of that alleged quotation doesn’t ring quite true to me. Even at his nastiest, Johnson tends to be much more elliptical, quoting the Iliad, or Wodehouse, or Kipling. I’m not necessarily acquitting him of having thought, or even verbalised frustration along these lines. But I think he is too vain, too relentless a performer, to say something quite so explicitly base.

Nonetheless, the Mail’s story gets to the heart of what really troubles the Johnson camp as they dig in for trench warfare against Cummings. As I wrote on Friday, the deepest rift between the PM and his erstwhile chief lieutenant opened up last autumn when the former resisted the latter’s (entirely correct) argument that a second lockdown was required sooner rather than later.

In his blogpost, Cummings refers to the now-infamous leaking of the meeting on Friday 30 October, at which the pros and cons of this dramatic option had been hammered out by the government’s most senior members – and the consequent hunt for the so-called “chatty rat”. According to his version of events, Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, cleared both Cummings and Cain, but said (Cummings claims) “all the evidence definitely leads to Henry Newman and others in that office, I’m just trying to get the communications data to prove it”. 

At the time, Newman worked for Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office (he has since been recruited by Johnson as a senior adviser in Number 10). According to Cummings, the PM was horrified by Case’s alleged conclusion. “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker then I will have to fire him,” Johnson supposedly said, “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?”

Cummings was, he goes on to claim, what Billy Connolly would call “shocked and stunned” by Johnson’s alleged suggestion: “I told him that this was ‘mad’ and totally unethical, that he had ordered the inquiry himself and authorised the Cabinet Secretary to use more invasive methods than are usually applied to leak inquiries because of the seriousness of the leak. I told him that he could not possibly cancel an inquiry about a leak that affected millions of people, just because it might implicate his girlfriend’s friends.” And so on, and so on.

In response, Number 10 has made clear that the leak inquiry is far from over and that nobody has yet been exonerated. In a broader sense, there is something comic, as well as menacing, about Cummings so blitheley adopting this high moral tone. Here, after all, is the man who was prepared to make any threat, summarily sack any adviseer, purge any MP, and unlawfully prorogue Parliament in order to force through Brexit. 

When he was caught out breaking lockdown rules, he claimed that he had gone for a drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight – going for a drive being a famously safe and reliable alternative to visiting an optician. His whole shtick was that he was above the rules, that he enjoyed a special impunity because he was right about everything, because everyone else was so stupid and (above all) because the PM had granted him total exemption from little-people regulations.

So it is both entertaining and grotesque to see Cummings clutching his pearls in shock, reinventing himself as a stand-up guy who had only ever been concerned to see Whitehall rules, procedures and protocols properly and rigorously observed, in the face of a prime minister falling “so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.” There are few things more absurd than a narcissistic anarchist suddenly posturing as an ethical paragon.

But, really, what did Johnson expect? It is a cliché that an adviser has to go once he or she becomes the story. But Cummings was already a big story, long before he joined the PM in Number 10 – indeed, he’d been played by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch on-screen. Yet Boris had formed the opinion that he needed Dom to get Brexit done, and had cycled over to his house to solicit his help; giving in to a series of “terrorist demands” that granted Cummings complete control of the Number 10 operation and, crucially, made him undisputed chieftain of all special advisers.

One has to acknowledge that Cummings did indeed force through the UK’s departure from the European Union and help Johnson manoeuvre Jeremy Corbyn into accepting a general election that resulted in Labour’s worst defeat since 1935. But – once that was done – it was only a matter of time before the two men fell out, and badly so.

There was never going to be sufficient room in Number 10’s cramped quarters for a politician whose lifelong ambition was to be “World King” and an intellectual guerrilla general who wanted to demolish Whitehall and turn the Cabinet Office into Nasa Mission Control. And Covid was just too real, too stressful, too demanding to allow this deranged set-up to continue. Take two power-mad fantasists, add a pandemic, simmer, and see how long it takes for the pan to explode.

On 26 May, Cummings will appear before a joint session of the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Commons select committees. And while his testimony will not change as much as the Watergate hearings undoubtedly did, its prospect is certainly filling the government with dread, and driving it to take whatever pre-emptive action it can to minimise the damage.

One could remind Johnson and Cummings of Sir Francis Bacon’s warning in On Revenge: “That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters.” But I think it is too late for that. 

They deserve each other, they really do, having brought out the worst in one another, and now indulging in a battle of egos at everyone else’s expense. Dom wanted Boris so he could enact his crazy plans. Boris wanted Dom so he could do whatever he liked. There is no mystery here. Each man reveals the other’s unforgivable weakness and folly. They are each other’s smoking gun.

Photograph by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images