Here was the year of Covid chaos in full technicolour from the ultimate fly on the wall.
Part personal vendetta, part faux-humble self-laceration and part excoriating critique of a failed British state, Dominic Cummings’ seven hours of answers were riveting, even for those like me who usually find events that obsess Westminster rather anti-climactic. Whether it was the ‘greatest political theatre’ in years is up for debate (for my money it’ll take something very special to beat Danny Alexander holding up a yellow Budget box back in 2015).
So thick and fast were the anecdotes and personal attacks it was difficult to keep up. The main target of Cummings’ ire was Matt Hancock – who he said should have been sacked – followed closely by the Prime Minister (“unfit for the job”) and Carrie Symonds, who Cummings kept dismissively referring to as Johnson’s “girlfriend”. There were fascinating details about particular moments, not least March 12 of last year, when a combination of “Trump wants us to bomb Iraq” and stories about Dilyn the Dog apparently derailed the Government’s comms strategy.
But for all the missiles he launched at others, the person Cummings spent by far the most time contemplating was himself. There was self-laceration and apology aplenty for his own performance, combined with a quite Olympian demonstration of the “humble brag”. The inordinately well-read Oxford grad with the rambling, willfully abstruse blogs insisted that he is “not smart”. It was, he averred, “crackers that someone like me” reached such a high position, before then claiming he only stayed in his job because his presence was essential to the country’s Covid response.
There was even a sort of half-apology for the Barnard Castle farrago, though it was less that what Dom did was wrong, more that he didn’t explain himself properly: I suspect those who still hold that against him won’t really have changed their mind, not least as he continues to cleave to his “testing my eyesight” story. It was also pretty hard to swallow Cummings railing against others for briefing journalists, when he clearly spent a fair bit of time doing so himself. The same holds of his general critique of the Government’s response, of course: he was an integral part of the failure, outwardly offering an apology but sounding like he wanted to park as much blame as possible at others’ doors.
And, intriguing though the personal psychodrama was, a lot of his accusations were not especially revelatory. Johnson didn’t take Covid seriously in February, care homes were a complete fiasco, various people wanted to delay or avoid lockdown to save the economy: all definitely Bad Things, but also pretty well-known to Joe Public by now. The endless claims against Hancock may take longer to work themselves out, however, and the Health Secretary is likely to have a distinctly uncomfortable time in a couple of weeks when he faces the joint committee.
But while the details of day-to-day events will make a great resource for future historians, Cummings’ pronouncements on Whitehall failure are what ought to animate the Government here and now. There were plenty of criticisms thrown out, but they essentially boiled down to good people going unrewarded and bad people getting over-promoted. Cummings’ Whitehall is a sclerotic place where inertia, “groupthink” and doing things a certain way triumphs over measurable achievement or outside input – failings which were amplified at great cost during the pandemic, not least when it come to ordering PPE in the early months. What’s puzzling, though, is that his answer to the endemic failure he describes often seems to be to get cleverer, more technical people involved – adding some shiny taps rather than fixing the shattered plumbing.
How much will yesterday’s session reverberate?
It’s become a bit of a cliché to say voters don’t care about the intricacies of politics, and few people know that better than Cummings himself. True, it is unlikely that the opinion polls will suddenly see a surge in Labour support, for two reasons. First, Keir Starmer offered such tepid opposition to Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic that he can’t credibly claim things would have been different on his watch. Second, his party is in such a profound malaise that it’ll take more than a disgruntled former Tory aide to get it out of the mire.
But there are subtler, more long-term ways Cummings’ avalanche of opprobrium might change the weather. For one thing, the sheer number of accusations and their strength provides a reservoir of attacks on the Government. And even if the public don’t hang on his every word, Tory MPs and power-brokers may have noted his criticisms, particularly about the PM’s apparent difficulty making decisions, with interest.
Nor does yesterday mark the end of the matter, not by a long haul. In the short term we’ve still got all the WhatsApp and text evidence Cummings says he will produce. Further ahead, there’s the unappealing prospect of a long, drawn-out public inquiry. So when Cummings says “the less everyone hears from me in the future the better”, he may be keeping that sharp tongue firmly in cheek.
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