Adam Toms

The Prime Minister’s former Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings’s, appearance before the HoC Health and Science select committees on Wednesday will prove the most significant test so far for Johnson’s water off a duck’s back reputation.

Reminding one of Monty Python’s Black Knight, the PM has shrugged off blow after blow from inquiries, the opposition, and leaks.

It would prove tricky to imagine many of his predecessors escaping virtually any widespread public outrage for allegedly describing that they would rather see bodies of Britons ‘piled high’.

Only the Blonde Knight has somehow kept his arms and legs. 

Dominic Cummings letting loose in front of television cameras will prove another of these instances.

He described a No. 10 in chronic chaos and confusion as scientific and ministerial thinking was ”completely flawed” as late as 11 March – at least 12 days before the implementation of a nationwide lockdown on 23 March 2020.

Cummings claimed, for example, that the go ahead of the Cheltenham Festival (10-13 March) and Champions League match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid at Anfield (1 March) “wouldn’t affect transmission” and cancelling these mass events would just “push people into pubs”.

This was not considered an option as he stated that it was thought that Britons would “not accept Wuhan-style measures”.

“We aren’t going to close pubs and retail and all this”.

Vivid descriptions followed of Cummings texting the PM warning that “We’ve got big problems coming, the cabinet office is terrifyingly shit”.

We must “force the pace” and ‘tell people who have symptoms of cold and flu to stay at home’.

Mark Sweeney, officiator at the Department of Health, reportedly said on 13 March, “I’ve been told for years that there’s a plan for this”… “there is no plan”.

“I think we are absolutely fucked”. “I think we’re going to kill thousands of people”.

“Boris Johnson is, by design, imperfect, slightly bumbling, and an oftentimes clumsy speaker. This forms the foundations of his appeal.”

It was “like a scene from Independence Day” with Ben Warner, often Cummings’s representative in meetings, in “the Geoff Goldblum role” telling the PM that “the aliens are coming”.

But this is “all completely wrong and the NHS is going to be smashed in weeks”.

Also in March, Cummings recounts how half of No. 10 were discussing Trump’s threats to bomb Iran, following the assassination of Iranian military officer Qasem Soleimani, with the other debating whether to enforce quarantine.

“Thank God, the Attorney General persuaded the PM not to go ahead with the whole bombing campaign”.

Boris Johnson is, by design, imperfect, slightly bumbling, and an oftentimes clumsy speaker. This forms the foundations of his appeal.

The ex-Vote Leave mastermind started his appearance by saying that senior ministers and advisors fell disastrously short of expected standards and failed. He also apologised to the families affected and for his own failings.

Lest COBR meeting continued to “leak like a sieve”, neither him or the PM attended them.

Cummings continued to portray the PM as a leader out of his depth and completely under-appreciating the seriousness of the impending crisis in early 2020.

In February, the PM regarded this as just a “scare story”, “the new swine flu”.

Reportedly there were jokes about how Johnson was “going to get Chris Whitty to inject me [him] with Covid on live TV to show people that there’s nothing to be scared of”.

Economic damage was allegedly prioritised over people’s lives.

Following his online preambles he also tore into his nemesis: the workings of the ‘Whitehall system’.

Stating to Johnson, most likely watching events at home before Prime Minister’s Questions later that day, and one of Corbyn’s chief disciples – the committee questioner Rebecca Long Bailey: any system which presents a choice of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn is “a system that’s gone extremely, badly wrong”.

Referring to them as “donkeys”, he suggested that even he should not have been left in charge as there’re thousands of “wonderful people in this country” who could provide better leadership.

This all created – as was inevitable – a virtual Twitter hurricane amongst those obsessive enough to sit through a four hour committee meeting, with Cummings’s characteristically casually attired person and answers the calm, didactic centre.

Those in ultimately in charge of this administration, however, backbenchers and the electorate, are, and will continue to be, focused on the lifting of lockdown.

The PM is to update the country on this prospect soon, with either a go ahead or announcement of a stall in the lifting of restrictions expected on 14 June.

Allegations of incompetence and questionable and lurid phrases used behind the scenes – the latest revealed yesterday claimed that Johnson stated that the pandemic was ‘only killing 80-year-olds’ when resisting a second lockdown – have stalked the PM throughout recent months.

Their camouflage in the long grass proving immensely effective as a large proportion of electors have chosen to either disregard or disbelieve them.

Boris Johnson is, by design, imperfect, slightly bumbling, and an oftentimes clumsy speaker. This forms the foundations of his appeal.

Certainly, as he entered the country’s highest office, this personality was prone to darker developments. These, if all of Cummings’s claims are bona fide, have occurred.

Nevertheless, the doctrine of George Orwell’s menacing creation O’Brien has become commonplace within the political outlook of many, and this can be very easily disregarded.   

This is especially true if recent public perceptions of his accuser continue.

Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle in Spring 2020, Johnson expending immense credibility and political capital to defend his adviser at the time, may actually play into the Government’s hands.

Cummings’s ‘net favourability’ in Nov 2020 was -64, the PM’s at -19, according a YouGov survey of 1718 adults.

22% were more inclined to believe Johnson. 16% Cummings.

Cummings is not the mysterious, somewhat beguiling figure seen during his first appearance in front of a select committee following Vote Leave’s victory in 2016.

Many will primarily think of his explanations regarding his Castle visit as, at best, questionable and untruthful.

This will give those who want to a reason to dismiss his aura of prestidigitation and judge him as primarily aiming to wound his former boss.

Matt Hancock was also ripped apart on Wednesday morning, Cummings suggesting that the Health Secretary “should have been fired for at least 15-20 things including lying to everybody” in the “cabinet room and publicly”.

His sacking, however, is not very likely, as Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel have suffered similar, and arguably worse, firestorms. The PM has kept them in post after faults in full public view.

He will not sack Hancock on one man’s recommendation. At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the PM denied that he and then Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, did not have faith in the Health Secretary’s honesty.

Be that as it may, he will almost certainly be moved out of the role during the next cabinet reshuffle, most likely later this year. 

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