He came. He spoke. But what will Cummings’s explosive claims mean?

After more than two and a half hours of extraordinary testimony from Dominic Cummings to a Commons committee last Wednesday morning, Greg Clark, the former cabinet minister who had chaired the explosive morning session, called a short lunch break. He and his co-chair – the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt – had, like the other 20 MPs who were due to ask questions, been left stunned, appalled and riveted in equal measure by what they had just heard.

Expectations had been set high in advance of the appearance of the highly combustible Cummings. The ex-adviser had been forced out of Downing Street last November in a power struggle that had involved the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds. Downing Street was on edge because Cummings had been firing off ominous preparatory salvoes on Twitter for days. But after a morning in the witness chair he had already exceeded his billing, unleashing accusations of such gravity that at times the MPs (and presumably much of the public watching on TV) found it all but impossible to keep up.

“To lift the lid on the inadequacies of a government he served, in the face of a crisis like Covid, in the way he did – so calmly – was unlike anything I have ever witnessed,” said one committee member.

Cummings had painted pictures of his former boss Boris Johnson as a hopeless, careless incompetent unfit for high office; of Matt Hancock as a serial liar of a health secretary who should have been fired “15 to 20 times”; and of the entire government and Whitehall machine as chaotic and dysfunctional at every level in their shambolic early response to the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

decision was made that this was just too gripping, and that we had to let it runClark and Hunt had planned for Cummings’s appearance to last three to four hours in total. But as they took their break – and tried to gather their thoughts – both knew that time limits on Cummings in this mood were no longer realistic, or in anyone’s interest. Before going off to their respective Commons offices for a quick sandwich – and as Johnson was being given last-minute briefings for prime minister’s questions by officials on what Cummings had said – Clark and Hunt had a short chat and agreed to let the Cummings show roll … and roll.

“There was a discussion, and a decision was made that this was just too gripping, and that we had to let it run,” said a committee source. “It seemed wrong to hurry it along. It was too important.”

In all, the Cummings evidence would last seven hours, until late afternoon. Throughout, with his head propped on his hands, he dropped bombshell after bombshell with dizzying regularity. Strikingly, however – for someone who had denied having done anything wrong last summer when he drove to County Durham with his wife and child when suffering Covid symptoms – Cummings opened with a very personal apology, and later even ridiculed himself as unfit to have been a prime ministerial adviser. “In any sensible, rational government, it is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position, in my personal opinion,” he said. “I’m not smart. I’ve not built great things in the world. It is completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just like it’s crackers that Boris Johnson is in there.”

He also took his share of responsibility for Covid deaths that he said could have been avoided. “I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistake that we made and for my own mistakes.”

As Cummings will have known full well, however, and as his friends pointed out in private afterwards, his mea culpas served a tactical purpose, giving his entire performance a credibility and impact it might otherwise have lacked. Without his own admissions as defences, he would have left himself wide open to ridicule, and accusations that he was merely bitter and out for revenge. “As it was, by sharing culpability he could twist in the knife with more lethal effect. He sounded fairer, more balanced,” said one Tory source who has worked with Cummings.

And twist the knife is precisely what he did in those he saw as ultimately responsible for the unnecessary deaths of many thousands of British people from Covid-19. Except – and this was widely noticed in Westminster – he left his old friend Michael Gove out of the line of fire (despite describing his department as “terrifyingly shit”) and had only praise for Johnson’s likely successor, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor.

Cummings’s depiction of the prime minister was, by contrast, that of a walking disaster who grossly underestimated Covid in the early part of last year, until he contracted it himself and ended up in intensive care last April.

“In February, the prime minister regarded this as just a scare story, he described it as the new swine flu,” Cummings told the committee. Johnson, he said, was an awful leader in a crisis, one who blundered from one wrong decision to another, guided more by media pressure than evidence or serious thought.

As a result, lockdowns were delayed in spring and autumn with fatal effects. “No one could find a way around the problem of the prime minister [being] just like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other,” was the analogy Cummings planted in people’s minds.

Johnson had also fired off several typically unguarded, insensitive remarks, Cummings said, such as that the virus was only killing people over 80, that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown last autumn, and that he should have acted like the mayor in the film Jaws and kept things open rather than shut them down.

But it was Hancock – who tried all last week to combat Cummings’s assaults by casting himself as a great Covid patriot (he wore an England football shirt when out running and a union jack mask when hounded by the press) – who Cummings seemed most determined to bully and ultimately destroy. “I think the secretary of state for health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly,” he said.

The most incendiary allegation, denied by Hancock, was that the health secretary had told the prime minister and others that people would be tested for Covid-19 before leaving hospitals and moved to care homes, early on in the pandemic.

“Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?” Cummings said, before adding: “We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We only subsequently found out that that had not happened. Now, all the government rhetoric was ‘we have put a shield around care homes’ and blah, blah, blah. It was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”

The next day, as Hancock was summoned to parliament to answer an urgent question from Labour on the Cummings accusations, MPs seemed disoriented. Several noted the way attitudes to Cummings had changed overnight on their own sides – both Tory and Labour. They had become inverted. Suddenly Conservatives who had gone out of their way to defend him over his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle last year now had an interest in portraying him as a bitter and twisted liar. At the same time, Labour MPs who had painted him as the ultimate hypocrite less than 12 months ago were using his word as gospel.

The ironies were highlighted by the Tory MP William Wragg in a mischievous question to Hancock. “It must be personally difficult for him and others who needlessly defended someone so willing to throw them into the road – presumably a road full of those behind the wheel testing their eyesight. But is not the greater irony the strange epiphany in many who have gone from regarding the prime minister’s former adviser as a latter-day King Herod whose words and deeds could not be trusted, to regarding him as a prophet who, fresh from the wilderness, brings with him supposed truths written on tablets of stone? Irony of ironies, all is irony.”

Hancock, meanwhile, opted for the Churchillian approach, not even mentioning Cummings once by name from the dispatch box and giving the deliberate impression that the day before had never happened. “I am proud of everyone in my department,” he said. “Whether it is the science, the NHS or the people queueing for vaccines in their droves, Britain is rising to this challenge. We have come together as one nation, and we will overcome.”

Four days on from Cummings’s appearance, one question MPs are asking is what difference, if any, his blitzkrieg on the government and prime minister he used to serve will make. Labour senses a chance. Labour leader Keir Starmer, writing in the Observer, says the government’s incompetence and failure to learn the lessons from its previous mistakes is the “single biggest threat” to plans to end most restrictions on 21 June.

The Conservatives’ sense of invincibility after the local elections on 6 May has been punctured. As one former Tory minister put it, Cummings has created real and immediate problems for Johnson.

“Cummings has left Boris with a real dilemma now over unlocking on 21 June. If he does and we have another spike in cases, it will suggest he has blundered again. If he delays, he will be in huge trouble with our MPs. There will also be big questions about whether we should bring forward the public inquiry after what Cummings said. The pressure is very much on us again.”

Of all the excoriating claims made by Cummings, it was the one about Hancock claiming hospital patients would be tested before they were returned to care homes that could be most serious.

Hancock has already conceded that some residents were returned to homes without tests, but says he never stated that all would be tested. He says that he promised tests for all residents discharged from hospital as soon as testing capacity allowed.

The second big question MPs are asking is what more Cummings has in his locker: what, if any, killer evidence he might produce. Hunt and Clark are writing to Cummings in the next few days to demand that he produce what evidence he has to back his claims, and they want to see it before Hancock appears before the committee in 11 days’ time. At the same time, they will insist that Hancock agrees to an open-ended sitting, staying for as long as MPs have questions, as happened with Cummings.

Allies of Cummings have previously suggested he has contemporaneous notes and even recordings of some key meetings. A lot also hangs on the truth about a key meeting in May last year, when the prime minister is said to have quizzed Hancock about his response to care homes and testing. Hancock’s allies have said they do not recognise reports of such a meeting.

Major care home providers are now demanding to know the truth. The Observer has been told that they met Department of Health officials on 12 March and warned them that no untested transfers should be made from hospital. By 2 April, the official advice was that untested transfers could still go ahead.

This weekend, many Tory MPs are still bemused, uncertain what the repercussions will be for Johnson, Hancock, the government and their party. Most believe Hancock is damaged but on the other hand they know it will now be more difficult for the prime minister to move him or sack him soon, as if he does it would appear to vindicate the Cummings view.

As for Johnson, the man who did more than any other unelected figure to deliver Brexit for him and then won him a general election and an 80-plus Commons majority has served notice, in seven hours of evidence, that he is after him.

“Boris knows more than anyone that Cummings is a winner,” said a former Tory minister who knows Johnson and Cummings well. “That is why he took him on and that is what will frighten him now. What will Cummings do next? We don’t know. That is what is so terrifying.”




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