Dominic Cummings, possibly the most disliked political figure in Britain, is back on the front pages of three newspapers today (The Times, The Telegraph and The Sun), with a No 10 source claiming he is the one behind a string of recent stories damaging to Boris Johnson.
Cummings has since written a denial on his blog, saying he is not behind the recent leaks. But it is not surprising that No 10 have come to that conclusion.
As I wrote in November when he left No 10, Cummings’s strategic use of the media has been the defining characteristic of his career, despite him once claiming to me that “approximately 100 per cent of all media is irrelevant to my goals”.
“If you join the dots, it looks like it’s coming from Dom,” a No 10 source told The Telegraph. Indeed it does. Why? Because the damaging stories have all come from journalists who appear to have a track record of leaking from Cummings.
A week ago the Mail’s Simon Walters reported that Johnson was lobbied last summer by “killer Saudi prince” Mohammed bin Salman over a failed bid to buy Newcastle United FC. Walters was also the journalist behind a pivotal story in the Mail last February that helped to get Sajid Javid fired as chancellor. That story quoted “Treasury sources” in reporting on a supposed rift between Carrie Symonds and Cummings. Javid’s team told me that they think Cummings himself was behind that leak. If Cummings was Walters’s source then, he may have been his source last week too.
A similar pattern could also explain the BBC story this week, which revealed a text message exchange between James Dyson and Johnson during the initial outbreak of Covid-19 last March. That story was released by the BBC without an author attached, but it is likely to have been leaked to its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg. She promoted the story widely online and it featured prominently on BBC News at Ten – political stories rarely get airtime on the Ten if they haven’t come from the Millbank team that Kuenssberg fronts, journalists inside the BBC told me in March.
Kuenssberg has long been an outlet for Cummings, as I noted in a recent longread on the BBC. When Cummings was fired by Johnson in November, he tried to get ahead of the news by claiming that his departure was voluntary via Kuenssberg’s Twitter account – a narrative that strained credulity at the time, but one that Kuenssberg did not challenge.
Months later, a few weeks after the New Statesman’s BBC piece, Kuenssberg published a well-crafted longread offering “the inside story” of how No 10 reacted to Covid-19 last spring. That story was anchored by a remarkable quote: that Johnson had initially suggested the best response to Covid “would be to ignore it”. Did Cummings, in return for an uncritical outlet in November, leak both that incendiary line and this week’s text exchange with Dyson to the BBC?
When it comes to assessing sourcing, all one can do is attempt to “join the dots”. But there is a clear and identifiable motive for Cummings to leak (Johnson fired him and Cummings has no chance of returning to government). He also has a long track record of such behaviour, dating back to the early 2010s when Cameron, then prime minister, had to call Cummings into No 10 in a bid to quieten him.
Aside from Friday night’s denial, Cummings has notably not blogged since leaving No 10, despite doing so for years up until January 2020. That may well be because he knows how unpopular he is. For many, whenever Cummings now speaks, all they will hear is “Barnard Castle”. But by leaking to major outlets, from the Mail to the BBC, his revelations are lent a degree of credibility that would be lost if they were released under his own name.
As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has written, this Johnson-Cummings soap opera is secondary to the real story of the day: the lobbying scandals themselves. Still, for those wanting to play detective, it’s not hard to construct a theory that points straight to Cummings.