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LONDON — Dominic Cummings appeared in front of a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, ostensibly to give his account of the U.K. government’s handling of the pandemic. In the process, we got a hair-raising account of the inner workings of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street.
The prime minister’s former chief adviser painted a picture of a leader simultaneously obsessed with how he was perceived and unable to take difficult decisions.
Or, as Cummings put it: “Nobody could find the way around the problem of the prime minister, like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other.”
The narrative he gave MPs suggested the prime minister and the vast majority of those around him, including scientific advisers, were paralyzed by “groupthink” until mid-March 2020 and unwilling to confront the need for a full lockdown.
Contrary to the prevailing criticism that Johnson should have been more closely involved in early emergency planning, Cummings claimed officials felt there would have been little point, as the prime minister then saw COVID-19 as a “scare story” comparable to swine flu.
While he allowed that any premier would have struggled in that initial phase, the major indictment of Johnson was that he quickly regretted the full lockdown after it was imposed and became transfixed by reopening the economy.
By April 2020, Johnson “was back to thinking lockdown was a mistake,” according to Cummings, and was being influenced by the Daily Telegraph’s “stupid campaign” to promote a mass return to the office as well as Tory MPs “going crackers” for a quicker reopening.
This was a theme throughout the session, in which he accused the prime minister of an “obsession” with the media. “If the prime minister changes his mind ten times a day and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy day after day, you’re going to have a communications disaster zone,” Cummings said.
When asked near the end of the hearing if he thought Johnson was a fit and proper person to get the country through the pandemic, he said simply: “No.”
Cummings acknowledged public confidence was also damaged by his own failure to disclose, in agreement with Johnson, that his controversial trip to Durham at the height of the pandemic was primarily motivated by security concerns. The journey was widely seen as an outrageous breach of lockdown rules at the time for which he seemingly had no convincing explanation.
When in government, Cummings was often seen as an all-powerful figure who had Johnson’s ear and so had almost total control over policy and the Downing Street engine. But the top aide — some may suspect self-servingly ahead of an upcoming public inquiry into government failures — said that was far from the truth. On top of Johnson’s own vacillation, Cummings said the wider machinery of government “was set up almost by design to create a dysfunctional system.”
At one point he claimed Johnson embraced this dysfunction, saying: “The prime minister said: ‘I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos. The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.’”
But the most searing criticism of Johnson was reserved for his management of increasing infections in September 2020, when Cummings claimed the prime minister unilaterally overruled recommendations for a second lockdown. Minutes from a September meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) showed that a short “circuit breaker” lockdown was recommended for “immediate introduction.”
“He wasn’t taking any advice. He was just taking his own decision that he was going to ignore the advice,” said Cummings. Of localized restrictions introduced in October, the former adviser claimed: “We created tiering ad hoc because the prime minister wouldn’t take control.”
Cummings then stated on the record for the first time that Johnson had indeed remarked he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third lockdown, just after reluctantly agreeing to the November lockdown.
At the same time as supposedly ignoring all expert guidance, Cummings said Johnson was being swayed by the whims of his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, whom he charged with “unethical” interference in the running of Downing Street.
Heroes and villains
The marathon seven-hour grilling was bisected by the regular session of prime minister’s questions, at which point Johnson won back the spotlight for a brief moment to defend himself. He told the Commons: “The handling of the pandemic has been the most difficult thing this government has had to do in a very long time. None of the decisions have been easy … At every stage, we tried to minimize loss of life.”
When Cummings was not taking aim at Johnson, he cast other heroes and villains of the crisis. He accused Health Secretary Matt Hancock of lying repeatedly to the public about the adequacy of his department’s plans, and revealed he begged Johnson to sack Hancock 15 or 20 times.
In a live interview with POLITICO, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the claims were “false,” adding “Matt Hancock is an excellent colleague who’s doing a very good job in what has been a very tough global pandemic.”
A spokesman for Hancock said: “At all times throughout this pandemic the secretary of state for health and social care and everyone in DHSC [the Department for Health and Social Care] has worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances to protect the NHS and save lives. We absolutely reject Mr. Cummings’ claims about the health secretary.”
One senior government figure said Hancock’s position in the government was not up for debate.
Cummings was conspicuously generous to Rishi Sunak, disputing a perception that has taken hold in the media at large of the chancellor as resistant to lockdown restrictions. “The chancellor was begging for a consistent plan that we could stick to for more than two days without being knocked off course by the Telegraph,” Cummings said.
Amid the blows to his boss and side-swipes at Hancock and others, Cummings did not avoid self-examination, and apologized multiple times for his own shortcomings on several fronts: not forcing the initial lockdown sooner; not getting Hancock fired; and failing to make the case for a September lockdown.
However, the former top aide still left the impression that, on many fronts, he felt he would have done a better job than his boss.