How much damage can Dominic Cummings do to Boris Johnson?

It is certain to be a day of high drama and damaging details, but the Prime Minister's former adviser may struggle to shift public opinion.

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Fasten your seatbelts, buckle up, get ready for take-off... Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former senior adviser-turned-nemesis, has just begun what will be a four-hour session of questioning by MPs about the government's coronavirus response. 

After many weeks of damaging briefings – from wallpaper-gate, in which Cummings alleged that Boris Johnson once had "possibly illegal" plans to fund renovations with Tory donations, to the allegation that the Prime Minister said he would “let the bodies pile high” rather than order another lockdown – this is the moment that Dominic Cummings has been building up to. It is a time for him to discuss the serious failings of the UK’s pandemic response, as well as impugning the competence and integrity of his former boss and other individual senior members of government.

The long trail of briefings and an Odyssean Twitter thread have given a strong impression of what’s in store: allegations that we locked down too late; pursued a strategy of herd immunity at the beginning; were improperly prepared for the pandemic; failed to implement an effective testing and tracing policy; could have been even earlier on vaccine trials; and, later, that we locked down again (twice, and late) because of these other failings and the personal attitudes of senior figures in government.   

The thing about the long list of failings identified by Cummings in recent weeks is that they broadly accord with a harsh but fair analysis of the government’s successes and failings (except, perhaps, on vaccine trials, which is a view specific to Cummings). The early herd immunity strategy, currently being denied, is on the record. The public already thinks the first lockdown came too late. It’s not a secret that Johnson was reluctant to lock down again during the second wave: he told us so multiple times from the despatch box.

Broadly, the public knows and accepts that there were serious failings in the pandemic response, so while the details and precise allegations may be new, the overall narrative of what went wrong and what, crucially, has gone right, is unchanged. 

What actually matters is whether Cummings is able to provide precise details about problems that could be fixed – and lessons that could be learned – for future national crises, health-related or otherwise. But that’s not his sole priority. He is also seeking to vindicate his own actions and advice during the pandemic, while tarnishing those of his former boss and other individuals in government.

The question is, after such a comprehensive preview over the past few weeks, quite how damaging Cummings’s new evidence of the pandemic failings turns out to be (he has suggested that he may have documentary evidence) and how damaging the colourful, personal allegations against the Prime Minister and his leadership during the crisis are.

It is certain to be a day of high drama and damaging details. But whether it makes any difference to the overall assessment of Boris Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, and the government's handling of the pandemic, is a different matter.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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