Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
26 May 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 4:54am

Dominic Cummings’s real regret is that he couldn’t control Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister will likely survive Cummings’s many revelations and categorical condemnation.

By Harry Lambert

What is there left to say? For Dominic Cummings, a great deal. For seven hours and seven minutes, questions poured forth for Cummings on Wednesday from two different select committees, as MPs delighted in the volubility of so newsworthy a witness. No enquiry failed to elicit a relevant response, as Cumming paid court to MPs he once considered entirely irrelevant.

The man who in 2019 drove through the proroguing of parliament was, by the end of the day, delivering a parliamentary pep talk, telling MPs they alone have the power to hold the government to account. Only two brief adjournments interrupted proceedings, one for PMQs, where the increasingly irrelevant Keir Starmer made little use of Cummings’s torrent of accusations. 

Boris Johnson survived Starmer, and he will likely survive Cummings’s many revelations and categorical condemnation. Asked in a final question whether he thought Johnson a “fit and proper person” to get Britain through this pandemic, Cummings didn’t hesitate or equivocate: “No.”

Five years ago this month Cummings had Johnson stand in front of a bus that likely bent the arc of British history: “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”. For Cummings that statement was never inaccurate: it was a literal truth. The fact that we recouped £100m a week, or may have benefitted economically from EU membership, didn’t matter. The statement was true enough.

As Cummings made claim after claim on Wednesday, and as journalists sift through them all this week, there will likely be a grain of truth in much that Cummings has said. He does not tend to make baseless lies. Instead he embellishes and omits. He concedes and deflects. He will confess that he did travel to Barnard Castle, but leave out that he did so on his wife’s birthday. He will agree that he drove from London to Durham, evading lockdown, but glance over the motives of those in his car that night.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

He will, as he did all day, castigate Britain’s system of government – “It is obviously a system that’s gone extremely badly wrong. There are so many thousands of wonderful people in this county who could provide better leadership.” – while disregarding his power atop it for 16 months. He will jump seamlessly from one contrasting statement to another, seemingly unaware, or uninterested in, his many contradictions.

At one moment he is powerless, barely able to get Johnson to listen to him after the 2019 general election. In the next he is hacking together a shielding plan in 48 hours; intervening when top scientific officials need his help; bringing in his favoured staff to take charge of the Covid crisis overnight; and, in his final hour, seeking to set up a parallel chain of command that could work around the wishes of the UK’s democratically-elected Prime Minister, with whom he has decided he can no longer work.

His biggest regret? Not bouncing Johnson into a second lockdown. “I should have gambled”, he said, as his unrestrained testimony reached its surreal crescendo, “on holding a gun to his [Johnson’s] head”. He should, in other words, have threatened Johnson with a tell-all press conference, he told MPs, in which he laid bare the Prime Minister’s dither and delay over reimposing restrictions in September. His error, he has decided, was a lack of political blackmail.

Content from our partners
Prevent and protect – why looking after our oral health begins at home
Polling on the protocol: Westminster is a long way from Northern Ireland
How smart energy can deliver for smaller businesses

Cummings was confessing to tactics that no other adviser or politician has ever openly acknowledged. But few have been so consumed by self-righteousness. It is not that Cummings thinks he’s brilliant, as he regularly pointed out to MPs, but that he has always been convinced he knows the truth. And he has long proven willing to contemplate doing whatever he thinks necessary to deliver on that reality, as he did in 2016 and as he regrets not doing last year. 

He apologised as the committee hearing began, but it became increasingly clear as the day wore on that his only real regret was failing to convince Johnson to do as he, Cummings, had sagely advised: to lock down earlier in March and September; to fire his supposedly devious Health Secretary, Matt Hancock; to rid himself of the corrosive influence of his “girlfriend”, Carrie Symonds; and to give Cummings, the man who knew, the power to “sort out the chaos”. Cummings is sorry, but his apology was made on another’s behalf. It was Boris Johnson who didn’t listen.