By BEN FIRTH
For such an unrelenting and comprehensive attack on the Prime Minister and his government from a man once at the heart of it all, Dominic Cummings’ 7-hour grilling from MPs on Wednesday seems to have changed very little, at least for now. Once Johnson’s closest ally, only for their relationship to seemingly fall off a cliff, the ex-advisor returned to Parliament to lift the curtain on the government's chaotic Covid response, and he didn’t pull any punches.
Evidently, there is no love lost between Cummings and the PM, the ex-adviser made his thoughts about Johnson very clear in stating that he “regarded him as unfit for the job” and that it is “crackers” that Johnson is in the position that he is. However, even more concerning for Johnson than Cummings’ personal opinion will have been the ease with which he painted a picture of a cold-blooded and incapable PM, responsible for thousands of preventable deaths. Firstly, he confirmed what many of us already knew: it took far too long for Johnson to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic. Johnson dismissed it as “another scare story” and he pledged to be injected “live on TV with the virus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”. Throughout the crisis, Johnson opposed lockdowns, delaying the second one because Covid was “only killing 80-year-olds”, and then ruthlessly declared that he would rather see the “bodies pile high” than order a third lockdown. Such callous comments, devoid of any compassion, must surely spell the end for a Prime Minister, yet there have not even been whispers of resignation, and let’s be clear, when “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die” resignation is the bare minimum.
So how come Cummings’s bombshells have barely caused a ripple? Of course, many of his claims were unsubstantiated and it remains to be seen whether he can produce any damning evidence. But it can also be put down to Johnson’s unwavering ability to come through scandal after scandal unscathed. From Tory donors funding his flat refurbishment to sleazy Covid contract deals for friends and family, Johnson has an unmatched ability to maintain his appeal to the electorate. Whilst Johnson’s net approval rating has indeed slumped to -6%, he has recovered from slumps before, and this time is unlikely to be any different. He will get credit, deserved or not, for the success of the NHS’ vaccine programme which may mitigate any damage done in the long-term.
What’s more, this ability to survive is only enhanced by Keir Starmer’s strong aversion to fulfilling his role as leader of the opposition. This gift from Cummings would surely have been the perfect platform from which to push for full accountability and an immediate inquiry into what went so fatally wrong. Starmer went through the motions with his usual scripted attack on the PM at PMQ’s, but this can again be seen as a missed opportunity to capitalise on Tory failings.
The absence of any significant public outcry after Cummings’ revelations can also be explained by the fact that, unfortunately for Cummings, he left all his credibility at the site of his infamous ‘eye test’ in Barnard Castle. Whilst much of the electorate seems willing to ignore Johnson’s deadly blunders, it seems that Cummings’ spit in the face to everyone else complying with lockdown rules has left a permanent mark on his reputation. As a result, most have labelled this attack on the government as nothing more than a vendetta against his former colleagues. Despite apologising for his own shortcomings during his time in government and claiming that he was there to “set out the truth of what happened, not to settle scores”, Cummings’ humility, whether it was a charade or not, did little to convince anyone that this was anything more than a case of revenge. The fact that he was so damning of Johnson’s and Hancock’s actions during the Covid response, yet full of praise for the “extremely competent” Chancellor Rishi Sunak, simply points towards him playing politics.
Whilst Johnson isn’t facing any irreparable damage at the moment, the Health Secretary will certainly be most nervous whilst watching the fallout from this saga. Later this week, Matt Hancock will come face to face with MPs to respond to the accusations of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour”, such as meddling with efforts to build a mass testing system just to meet his 100,000 tests per day pledge. Cummings also alleged that Hancock should have been sacked on 15 to 20 occasions for lying to the Cabinet. Despite being met with cheers from backbench Tories in his first appearance in the commons after Cummings spoke, and Tories rallying around him labelling the allegations “unsubstantiated Westminster gossip”, Hancock certainly isn’t out of the woods yet, given that Cummings is being required to provide evidence of his claims. Additionally, Hancock has recently been engulfed in a scandal around Covid contracts being handed to his sister’s company, in which he holds shares. This, on top of other controversial contracts being handed to, among others, his ex-neighbour, suggests Hancock is relying on Johnson to continue his trend of ignoring his Cabinet’s discrepancies in favour of rewarding loyalty. However, with Cummings claiming that the Health Secretary is only still in his job as he is being set up as the fall guy, maybe Hancock should start explaining himself honestly, rather than fleeing from reporters.
With Hancock to face MP’s later this week, and a full inquiry to come in the future, Cummings will almost certainly play a role in determining the fate of the likes of Johnson and Hancock when judgement comes to pass about their actions throughout this pandemic. Nonetheless, the fact that there has been so little outrage as a result of Cummings’ comments highlighting thousands of preventable deaths, vendetta or not, begs the question of what it would take for the electorate to turn on Johnson.
Image: Flickr (Number 10)