Dominic Cummings is not clinically brain dead. I say this not out of any particular affection for him, but simply because I think it’s important to start from this very basic point if we want to understand his political objectives in his testimony to the parliamentary select committee.
Because Cummings has more than two brain cells to rub together, he understands that the very obvious glaring hole in his testimony to MPs – in which he argued that the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was useless and should be sacked, the British government should have locked down earlier, and the “health versus economy” debate is wrong-headed, yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has won plaudits from Conservative MPs and lockdown critics more generally for being a reliable bulwark against lockdown hawks in cabinet, was fantastic and flawless – is well, obvious and glaring.
And that’s the thing: if you are at odds with Sunak on the issue of lockdowns – which, if we accept Cummings’s testimony as even semi-genuine, he was – then you don’t really need to bring this up. (Also, given that essentially everyone on what you might broadly define as “the rationalist right” was pro-lockdown, I see no reason to believe that Cummings was the lone exception.) Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of that approach will, if you were pro-lockdown, inevitably rebound to damage Sunak.
But if you are pro-lockdown and anti-Hancock, as Cummings is, then you have to go out of your way to damage Hancock, because broadly, you and he were on the same side on the big questions. You can’t rely on your broader argument RE the merits of lockdown to do that for you. If you are pro-lockdown, and you convince Westminster and the Tory party in particular of that case, you don’t need to directly go after Sunak: the conclusions draw themselves. (Added to that, it will not be an advantage in the next Conservative leadership race if Conservative backbenchers think you represent the road back to relevance for Dominic Cummings.)
Of course, if you achieved both of those objectives, then you would be boosting the leadership hopes of any politician who could firmly tick two boxes: one seen in Westminster as impeccably pro-lockdown and one not called Matt Hancock. A politician whom Dominic Cummings had worked with, perhaps. Who, despite his responsibilities including the Cabinet Office, about which Cummings had much to say, was not mentioned once in Cummings’s testimony to MPs. Who has run for the top job in the past, perhaps. Whose undoubted ability to deliver a project to completion might be a very useful point of contrast among Conservative MPs with the current incumbent. One called “Michael Gove”, maybe.