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16 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:26pm

Keir Starmer should keep silent on Dominic Cummings

Whether by accident or design, the Labour leader took the right approach to Cummings at PMQs today.

By Stephen Bush

Why didn’t Keir Starmer bring up Dominic Cummings’s claims about the conduct of Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson at PMQs? It’s a question with two answers.

There is, I suspect, the real answer, which is that Cummings published screenshots of his supposed exchanges with Johnson to Twitter at 11.37am – 23 minutes before PMQs starts, and some time after Starmer and his team would have finished preparing both their questions and any fallback ones. It’s highly likely that no one in his team would have even noticed until after Starmer was in the chamber.

Then there’s what Labour should hope is the real answer, which is that Team Starmer was fully aware of the texts and consciously chose not to mention them: that they have learnt from the failures of their focus on Conservative sleaze over the past 18 months and are not going to make the same mistake again. Why?

There are four reasons to have known about and not brought up Cummings’s posts on Twitter and his blog. The first is the outside possibility that the contents of Cummings’s blog are wholly false. I’m not saying that I think this is likely – I’m just saying that unless you are Cummings, you cannot say with any certainty that the blog is reliable. Majoring on it means tying your credibility to that of Cummings, a highly risky move. It also means giving at least some credence to a blog that describes you, Starmer, as “useless”.

Added to that, Cummings himself is wildly unpopular with the public. It is not, in my view, a politically difficult question whether you want to associate yourself with someone who is unreliable and unpopular, and who may well be discredited by events outside your control. Just say no, Keir!

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The third reason is that the art of a good question and a good dividing line in the Commons, and indeed generally, is to ask a question that is painful for the other side to answer. There is no group of people in the UK that wants Johnson to say good things about Cummings and his judgement, outside of Cummings’s immediate social circle. This was the same problem with Labour’s sleaze dividing line: asking someone in parliament if they are sleazy or not is not difficult, because there is no cost to saying, “No, I am not sleazy.”

Despite the consensus that Angela Rayner had somehow “messed up” when Penny Mordaunt delivered an excellent response on this issue, the real problem wasn’t anything Rayner did wrong, but that the dividing line itself was perfectly designed to allow Mordaunt to deliver a good response. 

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And the fourth is that “Dominic Cummings  good or bad?” is a distraction from the issues on which Labour should want to fight the next election: the condition of public services and “cost-of-living” issues more generally.

Now, the party can’t control whether or not the next election will be about those things (if we have a period of pay inflation and payroll growth, then the political space for Labour will be limited), but it can control how much it talks about those things between then and now. The best way to mention it is a quick gag: something like, “I know the Prime Minister is prone to changing his mind. Only six months ago Dominic Cummings was a valuable member of his team. But can he tell us just how much…” And if you can’t think of a gag, not to mention it at all.