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23 April 2021

What’s behind Downing Street’s attack on Dominic Cummings?

No 10 is seeking to distract attention from the lobbying scandal, but Boris Johnson’s government is increasingly paranoid.

By Stephen Bush

The Treasury has released further correspondence from ministers and officials in response to David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill, though it is still insisting that Cameron’s half of the exchange is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Adding to continuing noise about Greensill, the Guardian has obtained emails sent by Cameron to senior officials at the Bank of England. 

In related news, Downing Street is putting it about that Boris Johnson believes his sacked chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is behind the leak of texts and other embarrassing revelations about the government, in a bid to take revenge against his former boss. Steve Swinford over at the Times and the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher have the grisly details.

Downing Street’s finger-pointing is, obviously, in part about its desire to talk about the soap opera surrounding the leaks rather than the content of those leaks. But it also reflects a longer-term atmosphere of paranoia and distrust in government. As I wrote in the Times at the start of the year, Downing Street has become a rather paranoid place, with aides considered close to Cummings being summoned up to the Downing Street flat for what one of those present jokingly described as a “show trial”. 

Although the stories about cronyism and corruption have yet to dent the Conservatives’ lead, they have deepened that mood of paranoia and distrust at the heart of government.

There are two reasons why transparency and fairness matter. First, everyone deserves a level-playing field in competing for government contracts and during the legislative process. But the second is grimly utilitarian: in the long run, corrupt administrations make mistakes because they hire the wrong people, implement their policies badly and fail. Paranoid governments tend to make the same mistakes. So while neither Cummings’ intentions, nor Cameron’s emails, themselves are likely to be vote-moving scandals, they might both be a sign of vote-moving crises to come. 

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[see also: Philip Collins on why we should be more generous to our former prime ministers – including David Cameron]