Boris Johnson considered Covid-19 a “scare story” and went on holiday. He had to be kept away from Cobra meetings because he was insufficiently serious. He ignored his cabinet. He was distracted by his girlfriend. He “made some terrible decisions then U-turned day after day after day”. He resisted a second lockdown, comparing himself to “the mayor in the film Jaws” who refuses to close the beach despite evidence that there is a shark in the water, and declaring “let the bodies pile high”.
Hour after hour, Dominic Cummings hurled jaw-dropping grenades in a public assault on a sitting prime minister without precedent in modern times.
Johnson “changes his mind ten times a day”, Cummings continued as Westminster, and much of the country, watched spellbound. He is “a thousand times too obsessed with the media”. He loves political disorder because “chaos means everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge”. He is “unfit” to be prime minister, and his lack of leadership meant “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die”.
If there is one person in the country with a credibility rating lower than Johnson it is Cummings. Sacked by Johnson last November, he clearly hungers for revenge. In his testimony on Wednesday he painted Johnson and Matt Hancock in the darkest possible colours, while conspicuously sparing those members of this government that he likes – Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove. He was evasive about his briefings to journalists, and changed his story on his infamous breach of the lockdown rules last summer.
For all that, Cummings’ testimony rang true because it conformed with everything that we know for sure of the government’s catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
The government did fail to take the virus seriously for the first two months of 2020. It did lack a viable plan for countering it. It was woefully slow to order a lockdown. There was a catastrophic shortage of personal protective equipment. There was no viable Test and Trace system. Hospital patients with Covid-19 were released into care homes. The government did ignore East Asia’s successful efforts to control the disease. It did fail to close the UK’s borders, quarantine foreign visitors or order people to wear masks. Johnson did rule out a circuit-breaking lockdown last September, and was reluctant to impose another lockdown in December. Left to his own devices, he would have opened the country up for Christmas with catastrophic consequences.
Under Johnson’s leadership the UK has suffered one of the highest per capita Covid death tolls of any major country, and delaying until next year a public inquiry into the highest death toll this country has suffered since the Second World War is, as Cummings said, “intolerable”.
Cummings’s testimony also rang true because so much of it conformed with what we already knew of Johnson’s true character – not the mask of amiable, dishevelled buffoonery he dons for public show. He is deeply unserious, narcissistic, dishonest, disorderly, cavalier and evasive. He does lack discipline and application. All this we have learned from those who know him best.
He was sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote. Sonia Purnell, his deputy when he was the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, has written that he has “the fiercest and most uncontrollable anger I have seen”, and is “temperamentally unsuitable to be trusted with any position of power, let alone the highest office of all”. Max Hastings, his Telegraph editor, has called him a “gold-medal egomaniac” and “cavorting charlatan” who “would not recognise truth…if confronted by it at an identity parade”.
Johnson’s two former wives, Conrad Black, who employed him as editor of the Spectator, his previous party leaders Michael Howard, David Cameron and Theresa May – all had their trust in him betrayed. Michael Gove, who led the Leave campaign with Johnson, challenged him for the Conservative Party leadership in 2016 because “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. Alan Duncan, Johnson’s deputy when he was foreign secretary, has described him as “a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement”. Dominic Grieve, the Conservatives’ former attorney general, calls him an “integrity vacuum”. And so the list goes on.
Whether Cummings’ testimony will make any difference remains to be seen, but Johnson’s blinkered champions in the right-wing press, and his millions of unshakable supporters, should heed what his former chief adviser – the man who masterminded his Brexit victory and propelled him into Downing Street – had to say.
This Prime Minister is not some sort of national saviour or latter-day Churchill. He is a uniquely dangerous and destructive man, a human wrecking ball. Yes, he has presided over a successful vaccination programme (though Cummings gave the credit to the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance), but he has also presided over 127,748 deaths – some of which could have been avoided. He has seriously damaged Britain’s economy, social cohesion and global influence not just by ripping it out of the European Union, but doing so in the most uncompromising and antagonistic manner. He has super-charged Scotland’s drive for independence. He is jeopardising the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. All that, and he is not yet half way through his term.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens should also take the dire threat he poses to Britain’s future far more seriously. They should urgently negotiate a progressive alliance, underpinned by a promise of electoral reform, as the only way to stop him. Cummings was undoubtedly right to assert that forcing the country to choose between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn at the last general election was “crackers”.