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The second Cummings

Thursday 27 May 2021

The prime minister’s erstwhile chief advisor has accused him of leading a chaotic government responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Here, a former Number 10 speechwriter analyses Dominic Cummings’ testimony


Regrets, he has a few

Dominic Cummings:
Thank you, Mr Chairman. I think it’s right that public’s elected representatives are trying to figure out what happened and the lessons to be learned. I hope you’ll get all the senior people involved in here to speak to you about it. 

The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, and senior advisors like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.  When the public needed us most, the government failed. And I’d like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, and for my own mistakes at that.

Since the former messiah had appeared before a select committee before, this event was billed as the second Cummings. The former Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, who at one point quibbled with that title and, like Gareth Keenan in The Office, insisted he should be known as “Assistant to the Prime Minister” (a proper humble brag), opened in fact with an apology. This was Mr Cummings against type. 

This opening statement was delivered not as a response to a question from the committee co-chair Greg Clark, but as a prepared affidavit. It announced Mr Cummings was going to play a new role. This would not be the fabled “I was right, everyone else was wrong and most of them are stupid anyway” caricature of rose garden fame. Instead, his story was going to be that, though he did it his way, he did have regrets. He had a few. 

The usual Cummings analysis is that the structure is defunct but that he holds it all up. In this account, he too is helpless as the structure of government crumbles. There are to be no heroes in this story, though there will be a few villains. The last line of this opening hints at the killer line in the testimony to come. In the end, once all the character play is over and done with, when the Westminster up-and-down is finished, the pandemic has been a matter of life and death and too many people, as the government floundered, sadly passed from one state to the next.

Hancock’s half hour

Dominic Cummings:
I think that there were some brilliant – like in much of the government system – there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels who were terribly let down by the senior leadership. I think that the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15-20 things, including lying to everybody in multiple occasions, in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet Room and publicly.

Rosie Cooper MP:
Oh dear. In that case, do you think people should be worried about facing corporate manslaughter charges?

Dominic Cummings:
I don’t know about that because I don’t really know what the kind of laws are and the rules are, but I think that there is no doubt that many senior people were just terrible. As I said in my opening statement, I think there’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect.

I think that the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people. I said repeatedly to the prime minister that he should be fired. So did the Cabinet Secretary, so did many other senior people…

***

I said repeatedly from February-March, if we don’t fire the Secretary of State [for Health], and if we don’t get testing into someone else’s hands, we are going to kill people and it’s going to be a catastrophe. 

I wasn’t the only one telling the prime minister that… I made lots and lots of mistakes but I honestly don’t think I could’ve been any more explicit with anybody at this time about this and I actually went with the Cabinet Secretary to the prime minister directly and said… the cabinet secretary said to the prime minister… “Prime Minister, the British system is not set up to deal with a secretary of state who repeatedly lies in meetings. We can’t operate like that”. 

The advance publicity to the Cummings appearance had been full of speculation that he might carry with him a dossier that would bring down the prime minister. Though the portrait of Boris Johnson that emerged over his seven hours of interrogation was hardly flattering, it was the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that Mr Cummings sought to take out. Cummings went for blood and, by the time he had finished, he had taken nearly an armful. 

He opened with a refrain that ran through the day – brilliant misfit juniors were let down by the useless officer class. At one point Cummings even used the phrase Alan Clark popularised (rather inaccurately, in point of fact) about British officers in the Great War – “lions led by donkeys”. Most of the brilliant lions in Whitehall appeared to have been recruited by Mr Cummings, and, in his view, his pride had performed well. 

But the biggest officer-class buffoon of the lot was Hancock who presided over the “smoking ruin” of the health department. From this account, everyone concerned, with the exception of a dithering prime minister, thought that Hancock should be fired. When he was challenged by Greg Clark to produce evidence that would corroborate the serious charge that Mr Hancock had lied, Cummings said he would see what he could do.

The most serious charge of all was that Mr Hancock had assured the top team that no elderly people would return to social care without a test. When the eventual inquiry into the pandemic delivers its report, social care will surely be the major scandal, and here Mr Cummings blames Mr Hancock. In so many words, he says that Hancock has blood on his hands.

Chaos theory 

Dominic Cummings:
As has been reported, the day that the prime minister became the prime minister, I was supposed to have an operation. I delayed it in order to come into Number 10, then it got delayed because of Brexit, it got delayed because of Covid.

At the end of July, I went to see him the night before my operation. And I said “I’m going in for this operation tomorrow, and, you know, I’m reflecting on things. You need to know that I’m going to leave, at the latest, by Friday 18 December and I think it’s best if you and I part ways.” And he said, “Why?” and I said “because this whole system is chaos, this building is chaos. You know perfectly well that, from having worked with me, that I can get great teams together and manage them. But you are more frightened of me having the power to stop the chaos than you are of the chaos. And this is a completely unsustainable position for us both to be in”…

And the prime minister said – which I think says a lot – he laughed and he said, “You’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos. Chaos isn’t that bad, chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.” And I think that was just a fundamental problem, it was a fundamental problem in our relationship and it was a fundamental problem in how Number 10 was governed and it was one of the reasons why I said in July that I was going to leave.

Anyone who has ever worked in Downing Street will recognise the chaos. Government, in which rivals seek their competing priorities, always contains an element of chaos. But this is chaos theory taken to a new level. Perhaps the chaos is an expression of the character of the prime minister, rather than a deliberately fostered strategy, but he certainly doesn’t sound keen on rectifying it. It is a depressing commentary on his method that he likes the chaos, because it makes him feel needed. 

The question is whether it matters – and the likelihood is that, in time, it will. A chaotic Downing Street is not an accident which is somehow separate from the true nature of government. Cummings has hit on a vital point here which is that a government, with clear priorities, has a proper line of command which runs from the top. The Downing Streets of John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May were all disaster areas because the principal figure simply couldn’t make decisions. This is a charge Cummings levelled against the current prime minister and it will prove to matter.

So this accusation is more than an embittered ex-employee being rude about his former colleagues. It is the revelation that the prime minister doesn’t know what he is doing and that is bound to matter in time.  

I’ve been on a journey

Jeremy Hunt MP:
Obviously, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that your family faced threats, but there is one thing I didn’t quite understand in your narrative. If you were moving your family out of London for security reasons, why did you move them back?

Dominic Cummings:
Because essentially, I’ve been on… During that time in the next two weeks, I’d been lying there thinking that I might die. I was extremely ill. On the 12th, the day before we came back to London, I could still… hardly walk 50 metres, and if it had been up to me, frankly, I would have left my wife and child behind, but she was extremely worried about me. She was worried that, you know… what happens if I just collapse at home? I’m by myself, who knows what state you’re in. 

The medical advice was that I shouldn’t be basically rushing back to work; I should stay and rest, but, you know, the prime minister had literally nearly just died, I was getting all these messages from everybody saying that, you know, the government’s in freefall, if you can get back, you should get back so I went back. She was worried about me, and therefore, she made the decision, you know, I’m going to come back with you. You know we all had to make very difficult decisions at this time. If I could have done, I would have left them in Durham, frankly.

The new explanation for the infamous trip to Barnard Castle was not exactly more persuasive than the original. Mr Cummings seemed to suggest that the real reason for his decision to leave London during lockdown was the security of his family, rather than his need for childcare during his own bout of Covid-19. He does accept, in this passage, that the trip was detrimental to public trust in the credibility of the government’s message. Here, after an hour of telling us about his super-smart friends in office who are trying to hold up the collapsing edifice of government, Cummings switches register again, back to the regretful and the humble. 

Jeremy Hunt raised the famous eye-test in Barnard Castle to which Mr Cummings replied with a rueful remark that he would have made up something more plausible than that if he was going to invent a story. However, in the context of his explosive accusations about the health secretary, there is probably not a lot of appetite for another excursion to Barnard Castle. In fact, the points at which the interrogation from MPs went awry – and it was for the most part a well-directed session ably engineered by Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt – was when they were diverted into Cummings-world and his past indiscretions. He came with some serious accusations to make, not just about senior people but also about the structure in and the culture of government. It was a shame when the questioning veered somewhere else.

Tens of thousands

Zarah Sultana MP:
Do you support the calls of bereaved families for a statutory public inquiry that’s independent, and led by a judge?

Dominic Cummings:
I don’t know about being led by a judge, because often these judge-led things actually don’t… the history is they often don’t really get to the bottom of it. But the principle of it, yes.

I think the idea that any kind of serious inquiry on lessons learned doesn’t start till next year is completely terrible. The families of all… tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die. There is absolutely no excuse for delaying that because a lot of the reasons for why that happened are still in place now…

If the government… if Number 10 today won’t tell the truth about the official plan which they briefed the media about, and described on TV a year ago, what on earth else is going on in there now? 

So yes, I do, and I also think, you know, if you go back – and this is not about dragging Brexit into anything – but if you go back two years, if MPs could seize control of the legislative programme and say “we are in charge, not Number 10” when it came to Brexit and the second referendum, why on earth can MPs now not take control and say “it’s intolerable that this can be delayed”. The elected representatives of the families of people who died who didn’t need to die must get to grips with this now, there is absolutely no excuse for delaying it and the longer it’s delayed, the more people will rewrite memories, the more documents will go astray, the more the whole thing will just become cancerous.

This was the question that inspired the tragic point at the centre of this whole affair. “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die”. That, when all else is said and done, is the line that will linger out of this evidence. No matter what one thinks of Dominic Cummings’ motives – and he did a better job than his critics alleged in keeping up the regretful tone – this line will resonate because it is both clear and true. Not even the most uncritical partisan of the government can really pretend the first phase of the pandemic was handled well.

Mr Cummings promised to supply the committee with the sheaf of papers, to which he referred regularly, so they could understand the chronology of the decision-making. No doubt an inquiry sooner is better than an inquiry later but that is the claim that really matters. The most intriguing question in British politics is whether this claim becomes established as an assumed fact and whether the government will, eventually, be punished for it.

Unserious, wrong, and guilty man

Dominic Cummings:
There’s a great misunderstanding people have, that because it nearly killed him, therefore he must have taken it seriously. But, in fact, after the first lockdown, his view was he was cross with me and others for what he regarded as basically pushing him into the first lockdown.

His argument after that happened was literally quote “I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open”. That’s what he said on many, many occasions. He didn’t think in July or September, “thank goodness we did the first lockdown, it was obviously the right thing to do” etc etc. His argument then was: “we shouldn’t have done the first lockdown, and I’m not going to make the same mistake again”.

***

Carol Monaghan MP:
Did you hear him [the prime minister] say “let the bodies pile high in their thousands?” Or “it’s only killing eighty-year-olds”?

Dominic Cummings:
There have been a few different versions of these stories knocking around… the version that the BBC reported was accurate… I heard that in the prime minister’s study. That was not in September though, that was immediately after he finally made the decision to do the lockdown on 31 October.

Some allowance should always be made for the words people use in private, when they do not expect to be overheard. Remember too that Boris Johnson talks in a way that no other politician talks and that this is part of his appeal, even if it sometimes sounds like a flaw. But even so, this is a damaging accusation to end on because Mr Cummings is accusing the prime minister of being unserious. Indeed, in response to a question from Jeremy Hunt (who ran against Mr Johnson himself and so who no doubt relished the answer), Mr Cummings quietly confided that he did not believe Mr Johnson was up to the job. There is also another substantive charge which is that the prime minister’s judgment is terrible. No qualified judge thinks that lockdowns didn’t work. Apparently, he still regretted the imposition. 

In the end, after an exhausting day, two things stood out and neither of them were the hapless Mr Hancock. The first was the impression of an unserious prime minister reluctant to take any decisions and whose instincts are usually wrong. The second was that tens of thousands of people are dead who need not have died.

Photograph by Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing St


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