On Tuesday 31 October, Dominic Cummings returned as if from the dead for his usual performance. He was giving evidence on the 15th day of the Covid inquiry into how government decisions were made during the pandemic. This is what he does now, and has done for more than two years – on the BBC, in front of MPs, and on his own Substack: he runs over an increasingly distant past in a bid to restore a long-destroyed reputation.
At the Covid inquiry, held in an unremarkable building in Paddington, he faced his least sympathetic interlocutor yet: Hugo Keith KC. The pair presented two models of a man. Cummings was, as ever, unkempt, slumped in his chair in a crumpled white shirt with the top button undone, his black tie loose, his hands invariably crossed, or on his head, or holding his face. Keith, in contrast, was a picture of British propriety: dark, tailored suit; Windsor-knotted pink tie; crisp white shirt; expensive watch; a poppy lapel already on display in October.
It has been a strange, silent year from Cummings: he has lost 16,000 Twitter followers and barely posted on his blog (for which he charges thousands of subscribers £10 a month). He has spent much of his time tweeting about nuclear escalation in Ukraine, describing Western involvement in the war as “even dumber” than Iraq. He believes AI is the transformative event of our age. He has left British politics behind, although he occasionally mounts his mad cry for a new Tory-displacing party to be built on the rubble of the old. His pallor on 31 October suggested he has been inside the entire time.
The power of the Covid inquiry is unique. It is leading to the public release of private communications and accounts: WhatsApp messages, email chains, even diary entries. Keith’s questioning of Cummings led, after four hours, to one particular message that drew audible gasps from an otherwise silent audience. But before Keith reached that point he probed: slowly, judiciously, witheringly. He interrupted Cummings – who has a habit of working himself up into a fervour when explaining the catastrophic failings of others – to tell him to “slow down, please, Mr Cummings”. Stenographers were on hand. His evidence needed to be recorded. Cummings stared blankly in response, and then began again to boil.
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The story Cummings told was familiar. “I see where this is going,” one texter wrote in a 2021 message that was shown on screen during the hearing: “Dominic Cummings saved the world!” That captures his general narrative, which runs like this. The government machine collapsed when Covid hit. The Cobra system of central crisis-management was overwhelmed. Britain was hurling headlong into “plan A” – a plan to effectively let the virus hit Britain, with a mild effort made to “contain, delay, and mitigate” its impact in order to spare the NHS (to “squash the sombrero”, in Boris Johnson’s immortal words). Thankfully, Cummings was in No 10. In the week of 9 March, he realised – after enlisting a few experts (“friends”, as Keith put it, unjustly) – that the country was heading for mass death. That Friday, Cummings drew up plan B on a No 10 whiteboard: lock down the UK. He has ensured the picture he took of that plan has been widely circulated.
Keith accepted that this plan was, as he put it, one of the first articulations of the strategy the government would go on to adopt. But, he asked, why didn’t Cummings wake up to the threat of Covid earlier? He pointed out that Cummings claims to have been told as early as 5 February by Patrick Vallance, the UK’s then chief scientific adviser, that the virus is “probably out of control now and will sweep the world”. Didn’t Cummings’ inaction then, Keith suggested, show that he accepted plan A for a month before changing course? At this point Cummings’ extensive recollection of events faltered. “It was three years ago now, I can’t remember the exact days…”
Cummings decried the “fatalism” of the government machine, which did not even contemplate lockdown until mid-March, without putting himself at the centre of it. Until, that is, he woke up to the threat and took centre stage. “You weren’t just a political adviser Mr Cummings, you were in a position to exercise a significant amount of control and power at the heart of No 10,” Keith said. But in Cummings’ telling he was a dormant, blameless character until his pivotal intervention, rather than one who simply woke up late to a threat that millions had already absorbed, self-isolating before the government instructed them to do so. Keith’s questions built to his central accusation: Cummings was a cause of the chaos in government during the pandemic.
Cummings, as he often does, made a show of mentioning brilliant and overlooked young women working within the civil service. A misogynistic culture prevailed, he said. But didn’t you participate in that culture, Keith asked, flashing up the text message from Cummings to Johnson that drew gasps? If Helen MacNamara, the then deputy cabinet secretary, was not removed, Cummings wrote on 22 August 2020, “I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building. I don’t care how it is done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c*nt.”
After the shock, Cummings apologised for his language, but defended himself. You should see what I said about the men – not least the prime minister – he said, proudly, perversely. Keith simply looked on with pity.
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts