What are we to make of Dominic Cummings’ marathon appearance before a parliamentary select committee today?
One obvious conclusion is that the former Number 10 advisor really has it in for Matt Hancock. The health secretary, he says, “should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things”, including lying to Cabinet about the state of testing in care homes and the NHS’ supply of PPE. Whether this actually reflects genuine incompetence on Hancock’s part is at this point fairly difficult to say, since Cummings is prone to both a) lying and b) personal vendettas.
Rather easier to unravel is the way Cummings has gone out of his way not to say a bad word about Rishi Sunak, claiming that the widely-reported and oft-repeated stories about the chancellor’s opposition to lockdown were wrong. I have no access to inside information about Cummings’ intentions or the tides of power inside the Conservative party, but… well, you don’t have to be Machiavelli, do you?
Cummings, it’s quite possible, does believe he is Machiavelli. He certainly thinks he’s cleverer than the rest of us and doesn’t care if we know it, and there must surely be some clever plan lying (I use the word advisedly) behind his decision to go in front of a parliamentary committee and announce that he should never have held his job in the first place.
There were plenty of other revelations – the talk of promoting “covid parties”; the bit about Boris considering being injected with the virus live on national television; the idea that in the middle of a pandemic Donald Trump wanted to launch a bombing raid on some poor country or another – that the press will be picking over for some time.
Once the Tories fought Labour; then, during Brexit, the Tories fought each other. Once the Vote Leave lot finally ascended to power, the only people they had left to fight were each other.
There were also things – the admission that herd immunity had, at one point, been the government’s plan, comes to mind – that shouldn’t be revelations but which will be treated as such, even though they were quite openly discussed over a year ago. But since the prime minister then started going on television to deny them, that for some reason means we act as if they never happened. There’s a load of stuff about how prepared the state was for this pandemic and how government actually operates in a crisis that’d be fascinating if we could trust a word of it, but this being Cummings I’m not sure we can.
But there are two particular things that stand out to me, that aren’t really about what Cummings said but more about what the whole event means. Firstly, this is just the latest example of a politician – Cummings is such, even if he has never been elected – learning to weaponise the attention economy. We can only cope with talking about so many things, and in the internet age media organisations are motivated to spend more time on those stories which grab clicks than those, however important, which do not.
The Aussie political consultant Lynton Crosby knew this, which is why he came up with his “dead cat” strategy. Donald Trump knew this, which is why he kept tweeting. Boris Johnson certainly knows this: witness the way he talked about his time as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent back in the early nineties (“[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party. And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power”).
This approach is key to the way the Vote Leave clique has approached power. The education writer Laura McInerney, who like myself covered Cummings: The Early years when he was a senior advisor in Michael Gove’s DfE, tweeted earlier that a key part of the “Gove-Johnson-Cummings playbook” was “distract with tall stories/memes/compliments”.
I’m not saying Cummings is trying to distract us from anything today: but he does know that if he says enough crazy things then everyone in the Westminster Bubble will drop whatever else they are doing and listen, just as he knows that when he publishes a slightly mad blog everyone will read that. It sucks the oxygen out of everything else, and it is infuriating.
The other thing that I keep thinking about all this is that the Johnson project is eating itself. Once the Tories fought Labour; then, during Brexit, the Tories fought each other. Once the Vote Leave lot finally ascended to power, the only people they had left to fight were each other.
All of which – added to Cummings sudden decision, in today’s session, to treat liberals and Remainers with a respect he deliberately denied them while in office – is a reminder that this project was never about achieving any particular ideological or political goal. All these people wanted was power. And as the pandemic has shown: this was exactly why it was a mistake to give it to them.