Much attention is being paid to the quote carried by Simon Walters in today’s Daily Mail. Boris Johnson, according to Walters’s source, was reportedly so averse to a third lockdown that he declared last October: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
What should we make of that line? The quote is so incendiary that it seems remarkable anyone who heard it did not leak it at the time, or felt able to continue to serve a Prime Minister arguably speaking the language of a sociopath.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
Did Cummings only object to Johnson’s supposed line once he was fired? Or has an actual, less incendiary comment from Johnson been amped up for effect, knowing that No 10 can only deny the line outright?
Johnson may well have made comments that will soon haunt him; he has before. It’s also believable that Cummings – if Cummings is Walters’s source, as there is good reason to suspect – could substantiate his claims with audio recordings, documents, or correspondence conducted on his personal email, which he used while in No 10.
Robert Peston has backed the veracity of the quote, reporting that: “two eyewitnesses – or perhaps I should say ‘ear witnesses’ – have corroborated the Daily Mail’s account to me. Also these sources insist they did not brief the Mail, so that suggests there are three sources.”
If one source can be dismissed as an anomaly, three is a trend. But Peston does not actually have three sources, he has two. If Cummings is one of them – and he has been a source of Peston’s before – it would be hard to put much faith in any denial of his at being the Mail source. Who is the second source? If it is Lee Cain, who demonstrated scant independence from Cummings during his time in No 10, and was fired alongside him, then the initial quote has scarcely been substantiated at all.
The quote may well be true, but the usual requirement for a journalist to double-source a quote is complicated by Johnson having recently fired Cummings and Cain, creating a pair of antagonists with a clear motive to leak damaging stories and with long-standing relationships to parts of the press. Peston’s sources may, of course, exclude both men. We are in a Westminster guessing game.
But perhaps the most notable revelation in the original Mail story this morning, while we wait for more substance, is what Walters’s piece may have quietly confirmed: that Cummings was the source behind the “Treasury sources” leak last February that helped to oust Sajid Javid as chancellor in the week of the cabinet reshuffle.
Javid’s inadvertent resignation was sparked by Johnson requesting him to fire his special advisers. That followed from Walters reporting on a supposed rift between Cummings and Carrie Symonds, crediting “Treasury sources”. Was that in fact planted by Cummings, as Javid’s team have long suspected? With each passing Walters leak that seemingly originates from Cummings – from the recent Johnson-Mohammed bin Salman story to this morning’s quote – it seems increasingly plausible that Cummings, then serving as Johnson’s chief adviser, worked to undermine Johnson’s chancellor last year.
If so, Cummings has been playing Johnson for far longer than he may realise. The question is why the Prime Minister ever let someone as untrustworthy as Cummings remain next to him in government for so long. After the Barnard Castle affair, Cummings’s capacity for casual deceit was made plain to the British public – but not, it seems, to Johnson himself.