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The Sword of Domocles

Monday 24 May 2021

The cross-examination of Cummings this week will be that rarest of things: authentic political box office. He won’t bring the prime minister down. But he can certainly make his life miserable


“I understand now what it must have been like for the royal family in the days before the Diana Panorama programme,” says one Cabinet minister. “Bloody hell.”

It is indeed hard to remember a political cross-examination that has been the subject of such hype or the cause of so much nervous apprehension. On Wednesday morning, Dominic Cummings, the former senior adviser to the prime minister, will testify to a joint session of the Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Select Committees.

At noon on the same day, Boris Johnson will face Sir Keir Starmer over the despatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions; an unhappy juxtaposition for the PM, to say the least – and an opportunity, by the way, that Starmer dare not squander as Neil Kinnock famously did when he let Margaret Thatcher off the hook in the Commons over the Westland scandal in January 1986.

Though it seems extremely unlikely that 23 million viewers will tune in to watch Cummings have his say, as they did to listen to Diana tell her story to Martin Bashir in 1995, the hearing is that most rare of happenings: authentic political box office. 

It may be, as Number 10 will tell anyone who’ll listen, that the PM’s exiled grand vizier has been badly discredited by his very public antics over the years and, in particular, by his breach of lockdown rules in March and April 2020. All the same, he draws a crowd: his extraordinary press conference in the rose garden on 25 May last year, in which he defended his actions to the hilt, attracted no fewer than 4.5 million viewers.

In a populist age in which spectacle seems to matter more than public morality, and stardom certainly counts for more than competence, Cummings has a huge advantage in a political conflict: he is an object of fascination. Even before he became Johnson’s chief aide in Number 10, he had, after all, been portrayed on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch; next up in the role is the former Star Wars actor Simon Paisley Day, who will play Dom opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Boris in Sky’s forthcoming dramatisation of the Covid crisis, This Sceptred Isle.

In principle, Cummings has made his name as a strategist, a data and science obsessive, a man who brandishes graphs, a sworn enemy of Whitehall (or all who work in the London postcode of “SW1”, or “the Blob” of the education establishment). But, really, not much of that is new: David Cameron’s close aide, Steve Hilton, a sort of prototype Cummings – T-shirts, no shoes, lots of shouting – wanted to slash the civil service so brutally that the survivors would all fit into Somerset House on the Strand. The late Sir John Hoskyns, one of Margaret Thatcher’s most influential advisers in her first term, also longed to revolutionise British officialdom.

I don’t doubt that Cummings was and remains sincere in his own longing for a “hard rain” to fall on Whitehall. But many others have yearned for such a deluge. No: what distinguishes him is his grasp of performance, charismatic power, and the tricks of show business. Cerebral he undoubtedly is, but at heart he is a thespian. 

In 2017, five years after he left Number 10, Hilton launched his own weekly show for Fox News, The Next Revolution, a bombastic celebration of Trumpite populism. The point of difference is that Cummings did not wait for his exit from Downing Street to cultivate public prominence and his unlikely status as something close to a household name (focus groups show that many more people know who he is than can name a single member of Johnson’s Cabinet). He was a star long before then, and he knew it: the supposed backroom Svengali who was drawing attention to himself from the moment he loped up Downing Street in shades and a hoodie.

And, like all top performers, he is selective about the gigs he accepts. It should not be forgotten this week that Cummings was repeatedly summoned to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee when, under the chairmanship of Damian Collins, it was investigating disinformation and fake news; and repeatedly declined to do so, for increasingly spurious reasons.

At one point, he proposed a deal whereby he would appear before a special “ad hoc” committee of MPs – “I mind only that it is not another platform for spreading errors and lies” – with the added (preposterous) condition that the parliamentarians themselves be compelled to take an oath. In March 2019, the Committee of Privileges recommended that the House of Commons “admonish” Cummings – as it duly did the following month.

In the debate on 2 April, Collins remarked ruefully that MPs had no meaningful system of penalties at their disposal, “a referral to court or some other body that makes the final decision and imposes a sanction,” and that, after Cummings’ flagrant contempt of parliament, his only punishment was a verbal slap on the wrist. Remember this on Wednesday, when he uses the committee rooms of Westminster as his stage of choice, with cameras rolling, media agog, and Number 10 officials heavily sedated.

Again, one must acknowledge that the publicity and social media campaign whipped up for Dom’s big day has been immaculately executed. At the time of writing, his latest Twitter thread had reached post number 50 (though do check to see if more have been added since).

As much as the media affects scorn for these digital screeds, they can’t get enough of them. Last Tuesday, Cummings even set up a Twitter poll: “I’ve got the only copy of a crucial historical document from covid decision-making,” he wrote. “Should I 1/ give it to the [committees] next week / put on blog, b/ auction it as an Ethereum NFT [non-fungible token] & give the ETH to a covid families charity?”

It was all a joke, he quickly explained, But the point had been made – that he was, and is, enjoying himself.

On 17 March, he made a warm-up appearance at the Health and Social Care Committee, describing Matt Hancock’s department as a “smoking ruin”, and pressing upon MPs the need to take “a very, very hard look” at what had gone wrong in the crisis.

This was a provocation – and, soon enough, the PM took the bait. Infuriated by the leaking of text messages between himself and the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson over questions of tax status, Johnson himself phoned newspaper editors on 22 April, accusing Cummings of disclosing the information.

This enabled the latter to release his main teaser trailer online the following day. In his first blogpost since leaving Number 10, Cummings denied that he was the source of the Dyson leaks – but offered to release all the materials, memos, communications and records that he had kept to the Cabinet Secretary, Electoral Commission, and joint meeting of the Commons select committees. 

In particular, he focused upon the leaking of the debate over the second lockdown, and the vexed question of who had paid, and when, for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat where Johnson lives with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, and infant son. The post adopted a high moral tone (“It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”) But its true message was entirely menacing: I know where your wallpaper goes to school, so to speak.

I have heard allies of the PM fret that Cummings will be tempted to complain about the influence in Number 10 of Symonds; that – to return to the precedent of Diana’s interview – “there were three of us in this marriage”. But interior decor and personal relationships do not fall under the remit of either of the committees before which he will be appearing. And, in any case, Cummings is much too wily to whinge in such a context about such matters.

There are four key areas about which Number 10 is fretting, and rightly so. The first is that Cummings will go hard on the erratic fashion in which border policy has been handled during the pandemic – particularly undesirable in the week that Priti Patel is announcing a full scale overhaul of the immigration system and of border management.

Second, there is considerable fear that he will release damaging information about the disastrous release of elderly Covid patients into the care home system – a decision that led to many thousands of fatalities.

Third, he will certainly have much to say about the test, trace and isolate regime and its failures, doubtless keen to exonerate himself of any culpability in that fiasco and to heap as much blame as he possibly can on Hancock.

But it is the question of national lockdown timing that will be of most interest to the committees. Cummings had left Downing Street by the time Johnson announced the third such instruction to stay at home on 5 January. But he was intimately involved with the arguments leading up to the first and second.

That the PM dithered in September, with terrible consequences, is now scarcely controversial. But the more dangerous accusation – and one whose flames Cummings has been fanning on Twitter – concerns the prelude to the first lockdown announcement on 23 March 2020. 

The crux of the matter is this: did the government pursue a “herd immunity” strategy in late February and March instead of taking fast, decisive action? On this basis, the original plan was that a sufficient proportion of the population would become infected by the virus and develop antibodies, the most vulnerable would “cocoon” as best they could, and the NHS would only face a single peak of mass hospitalisation.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, phrased her answer on the subject very carefully: “I can categorically say I have never been in any government meeting where herd immunity was put forward, at that point in the pandemic, as a mechanism for control.”

Her next argument was, at best, disingenuous: “I think it’s really important for viewers to understand what we mean by ‘herd immunity’, because, actually, what we’re doing with the vaccine which everybody is very supportive of is developing herd immunity. What we’re saying is: when you have a population which has a high level of immune response to the virus, then once we get it up to about 90 per cent somewhere around there across the whole population then the virus hasn’t got anywhere to go.”

Absolutely true – and absolutely irrelevant. What was being discussed last March was not herd immunity achieved by vaccine, but by infection. The PM himself put it thus in an interview on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March: “One of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures.”

To be fair, Johnson never supported a totally permissive response to Covid. But it is simply idle to deny, as ministers and advisers now do, that the achievement of herd immunity was, for several crucial weeks, the core objective of initial government strategy.

Indeed, as Cummings correctly points out in the 43rd post (no, really) of his latest thread: “Herd immunity wasn’t ‘a secret strategy’, it was THE OFFICIAL PUBLIC EXPLAINED ON TV/RADIO STRATEGY!”

Lest anyone forget, here is what Dr David Halpern, a member of Sage and head of the partially government-owned Behavioural Insights Team, said on 11 March 2020: “There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease. By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

Even more explicit were the remarks of Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, on 13 March: “What we don’t want is everybody to end up getting it in a short period of time so we swamp and overwhelm NHS services – that’s the flattening of the peak. Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.”

On 15 March, Hancock began to distance the government from this sort of language, claiming that “herd immunity” was “a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy” – a distinction without a difference, if ever there was one. The point Cummings clearly intends to make in detail on Wednesday is that the government was wedded to this “concept,” until it became clear that the death toll would be appallingly high.

There is, of course, the scent of vengeance in all this, a yearning to portray the prime minister – absent from five early coronavirus Cobra meetings – as a bumbling, distracted novice, out of his depth and away from his post. But Cummings also badly wants to clear his own name.

On 22 March 2020, the Sunday Times claimed that, “at a private engagement” in February, Cummings had set out the government’s approach to what was not yet officially a pandemic – characterised as “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

The report went on to claim that he had then undergone what it called a “Domoscene conversion”, performing a dramatic U-turn to come round to the idea of a national lockdown.

Cummings has always vociferously denied saying any of this. He knows, presumably, that the alleged remark about pensioners dying sounds exactly the kind of thing he would say. He knows, one can be sure, that the lens of posterity will focus with ever greater sharpness upon the lockdown decisions, who took what position, and when.

If he is as ruthlessly honest with himself as he is about other people, he will also know that he won’t have our attention indefinitely: celebrity is a cruel master, and, inevitably, his present, sulphurous fame will fade. If he wants to make a point, and ensure that people listen, now is the moment to do so – not in the many inquiries, official and otherwise, that will follow when we are worrying much more about unemployment, the NHS backlog, and the abrasive quality of life post-pandemic than about who said what to whom in Number 10 in March 2020.

Will he bring Johnson down? Of course not. A prime minister with a working majority close to 90, a remarkable vaccine programme to boast about, and a (so far) somnambulant opposition is not going to be toppled by a lone former employee with a rack of axes to grind. That’s not how politics works.

What Cummings can do is make Johnson’s life miserable this week, and perhaps for a good while longer. He evidently has things to reveal, but – much more enjoyably from his point of view, one assumes – he can suggest that there is plenty more to come, even if there isn’t; digging his claws a little deeper into his former boss’s exhausted psyche.

What a show. Only two days to go: grab your popcorn, and prepare to enjoy the angry man with the graphs.

Photograph Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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