Has a nakedly vindictive act of political sabotage ever been greeted with less condemnation than Dominic Cummings’s attack on Boris Johnson? With the Westminster mob licking their lips in anticipation of his Commons appearance on Wednesday, the man who loves to pour scorn on the distracted obsessions of political pundits is once again their singular focus.
He has drummed up media interest in his performance with meticulous care, timing his Twitter tirades precisely to hit the front pages of the Sunday papers and regularly slipping out teasing details to keep the story moving. With a hammy note of faux reluctance, like an ageing star deigning to do one last show, the onetime scourge of the political class is offering them a grand finale. Prepare the cameras and the lights — the Norma Desmond of SW1 is ready for her close-up.
I wonder if, somewhere in that big brain of his, he realises how useful he has become to his former enemies — or whether the red mist of bruised ego and defensiveness has blinded him entirely to that? When Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who made a career out of the fantasy conviction that the Brexit campaign was won through a vast conspiracy of foul play with Dom Cummings at the head of it, announces that “if Cummings successfully blows apart the political media industrial complex I am so very here for it”, it might be time to think again about the Covid narrative she and Dom now find themselves stitching together.
Theirs is a neat story that the pundit class has been determined to make fit since the start of Covid: Boris Johnson is a lockdown-shy Libertarian secretly pursuing a heartless “herd immunity” strategy in a cynical choice to sacrifice lives in favour of the economy. The trouble is, their thesis is transparently divorced from reality. Zoom out and the astonishing political fact of the Covid era, the thing that analysts will ponder for decades, is how a nominally libertarian Tory Prime Minister so easily confined his citizens to their homes for so long. Even today, when we have some of the lowest Covid rates in the world and more than 70% of adults have been vaccinated, it is still illegal for a family of four to have three friends over for tea.
The case we will hear on Wednesday, focusing on specific weeks in March and September 2020 when Boris Johnson supposedly dragged his feet before putting the UK into lockdowns, is a perfect example of the Westminster point-scoring Cummings has spent his career railing against. It will be cheered on by Left-wing media and politicians, as well as ambitious centrist technocrats such as Jeremy Hunt (who will be lobbing him softball questions at the hearing) and Cummings’s own phalanx of Right-wing fans on Twitter. All these groups, and even some people within government, are content for the political focus to remain on these days of apparent dithering and whether they caused delay and cost lives.
But I fear that, from the centre of the story, Mr Cummings has lost sight of the priorities of ordinary voters – which surely now consist of wanting to know when this will all be over and when lockdown will finally end. They don’t want to rake over the difference ten days might have made last March, (and besides, they have the correct intuition that people were locking down anyway during those days so their effect is exaggerated.) Equally, Cummings’s big accusation that the initial pandemic response plan, based on flu, included the goal of herd immunity is long-established, as is the fact that the Government initially considered it, then deviated from it rapidly when its implications became clear.
The same goes for the argument about last September: Cummings will tell us that he supported the SAGE calls for a “circuit-breaker lockdown” as cases began rising, and was disastrously overruled. But we now have evidence from Wales of a real-life circuit-breaker lockdown and how it failed spectacularly to change the trend. Most likely, had Cummings won that argument, England would (like Wales) have had a two-week slowdown and then the trend would have resumed. In any case, the UK rapidly started being locked down again after that point — initially via the local tiers system and eventually a full national lockdown, and then the Kent variant gave the epidemic a new lease of life after Christmas. This is all now established fact. So why does he think it is so explosive?
I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings up that Downing Street briefing with Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and Anders Tegnell again to add a little fuel to the conspiratorial imagination of Carole Cadwalladr and his other newfound allies against the Government. But Gupta’s advice to pursue the alternative approach of “focused protection” was comprehensively rejected by the PM, and the rapid descent back into national lockdowns is now a matter of history. It is hard to think of a group of scientists with less impact on UK government policy than these three.
In truth (and I say this as an admirer of Cummings) this last round of the Dom show has been sad to watch. The Downing Street wallpapergate allegation in his April blogpost was off-topic and failed to cut through — as the Tories’ historically successful elections in the Red Wall proved shortly after, achieved without any help from their talismanic former campaign manager. Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen told UnHerd, having won 73% of the vote: his voters “ridiculed the media for concentrating on [wallpapergate]… they just think it’s very London centric”. Certain details in the same blog, like referring to Carrie Symonds as Boris Johnson’s “girlfriend” instead of his fiancée, leapt out like flashes of menace, confirming that things had got pretty personal; and grand declarations that “I will not engage in media briefing regarding these issues” only looked absurd when followed up by 32-part Twitter threads.
As for his subsequent allegation, similarly designed to wound, that the PM at one point said “let the bodies pile high” in the privacy of his Downing Street office, a new poll suggests that most voters don’t think it is meaningful even if true and would just be an understandable expression of frustration. If the smooth operation of government is really his goal, what sort of effect does he think it has if a Prime Minister can’t even have a conversation with his closest aide without fear of public retribution in a few months’ time? As Mr Cummings takes such an interest in polling, he might want to consider YouGov’s other finding that only 14% of voters trust him to tell the truth anyway (the figure for Boris Johnson is 38%).
Dom Cummings prides himself on membership of the “rationalist” group of online thinkers. But the humility and careful presentation of evidence that is their hallmark is nowhere to be seen in his latest screeds. On Twitter, he resorts to repeating tropes about Sweden that a more rational look at the evidence quickly rebuts; and he is blind to his own involvement, saying that mass testing should have been developed much quicker last year — glossing over the fact that he was one of the key people in charge of delivering precisely those programmes.
If anything, his jihad against the Government he was formerly a key part of reveals the crucial shortcoming in the wider political philosophy that we might call Cummingsism. His diagnosis of a sclerotic civil service and inefficient political class was spot on; but trying to excise the persuasive element from government, centralising power in order to bully through the bureaucracy and trying to run the country like a science project, isn’t such a great alternative. His fascination with characters such as General Groves (of the Manhattan Project) and hyperproductive small teams within DARPA, the Apollo mission and Big Tech don’t simply map onto running a country .
Consider the evidence of his own time in No 10. He correctly identified most political Special Advisors as being uppity neophites who have watched too much West Wing and get excited about all the wrong things, so he put himself in direct charge of all of them; but instead of winning them over, he summoned them to humiliating weekly meetings and they soon hated him right back. He was paranoid about leaks to the media, but assiduously briefed the media himself and inserted himself into the story. His famous invitation to “weirdos and misfits” to join him in Government, done outside the official system via a Gmail account, was a good idea but executed in the same Cummings-contra-mundum spirit. It unravelled shortly after — where are those expert recruits now?
The common deficiency here, and in Cummingsism more generally, is a missing note of humanity. You can dream of an ever-more muscular system of government, smashing through due process and gripping the country tightly like the East Asian nations he so admires; it’s a fashionable goal. But what would it actually be like to live under? In truth, wouldn’t it simply entail a replacement of clubby, ineffectual Whitehall politics with a more draconian politics of fear and rule from the centre, of which lockdowns are only the start?
In which case, brief though it was, wasn’t Boris Johnson’s hesitation before upturning the lives of his citizens eminently defensible? If his 18-point lead is anything to go by, people seem to think so: perhaps they would simply rather live in a country governed by a maddening but identifiably human leader than the likes of Dom Cummings with their visions of military efficiency.
The final irony, of course, is that this supposed high-priest of lockdowns, this Cassandra who all along called for harsher restrictions and more draconian action, couldn’t even manage to obey the lockdown rules himself. Thus (and this is surely the biggest source of his rageful energy) the fatal flaw in Cummingsism lies forever exposed by the actions of the man himself. Barnard Castle and the whole shaggy dog story for which he will always be best known perfectly encapsulate how human life doesn’t fit neatly into unrealistic schemes dreamed up in Westminster.