Dominic Cummings set out to destroy the prime minister and failed. He tried in his evidence to the joint select committee to make the case that Boris Johnson is unfit for high office because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. By the end of seven hours, that case was still unproven.
He was also responsible for the charge that Johnson tried to pay for the redecoration of the Downing Street flat in a way that was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal”. And yet on Friday, Lord Geidt, the new adviser on ministerial interests, concluded that Johnson had not broken the ministerial code.
On the face of it, the failure of Cummings’ assault on both fronts is surprising, so it is worth trying to identify the weak points in his strategy.
The central charge Cummings made to the health and science committees was that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die”. But the force of the charge was blunted by Cummings’ admission that he was party to the decisions that he now criticises. And the more he talked, the less certain it seemed that, even in hindsight, those decisions were wrong.
Most of the coverage of his evidence focused on the early stages of the pandemic, partly because the picture he painted of panic and dysfunction was so vivid, and partly because his evidence went on for so long. Cummings told how last year he was urging the prime minister to order people to stay at home four days before he eventually did so, on 16 March 2020. Every day’s delay might have made a difference, but Cummings accepted that the scientific advisers were still divided at the time.
The more important period was in September, when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was urging a short circuit-breaker lockdown, which Cummings supported. Cummings said: “What I ought to have done is said to him [Johnson] then: ‘I am resigning in 48 hours. We can do this one way or we can do this the other way. If you announce that you are going to have a lockdown and take serious action now, I will leave, go quietly – we are all friends. If you don’t, I will call a press conference and say, “The prime minister is making a terrible decision that is going to kill thousands of people.”’ I should have gambled on holding a gun to his head, essentially.”
But he didn’t. Significantly, neither did Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, or Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer. Cummings asserted that they were “very clear” that unless Johnson acted in September, “thousands of people are going to die”. That does not seem credible. If they really thought that, how could they not have said so publicly at the time?
Paul Bristow, a Conservative member of the health committee, quoted the actual Sage minutes from 21 September: “A more effective response now may reduce the length of time for which some measures are required.” That is very different from saying thousands will die.
So, although many people will agree with Cummings that society should have been shut down earlier in the spring and in the autumn, he failed to make the case that it was negligent for Johnson to delay.
Then there is the wallpaper. When the reports first started to appear in the Daily Mail about Conservative donors being asked to pay for Carrie Symonds’ expensive taste in interior decor, it seemed possible that this was the kind of scandal that could threaten Johnson’s hold on office. Yet today, the elusive prime minister has once again escaped from the straitjacket, the chains, and the locked, lead-lined box dropped to the bottom of the Thames.
Lord Geidt has concluded that the chaotic prime minister had no idea who was paying for the redecoration, having been “insufficiently supported” by civil servants who allowed him to think it was all being taken care of by a trust. As soon as the prime minister “became aware” that the Conservative Party and Lord Brownlow personally had paid the bills – “immediately prior to media reports in February 2021” – he “settled the full amount himself”.
To use the kind of mandarinese in which Lord Geidt’s report is couched, it is “surprising” that it does not say how much was lent to the prime minister. We know it was at least £58,000 because Lord Brownlow’s email to the Tory party has been leaked. Nor do we yet know how much public money was spent on the refurbishment, although we can assume that it was at least £60,000, which is the £30,000-a-year maximum allowed for such purposes for Johnson’s first two years as prime minister.
And it is possibly “very surprising” that Lord Geidt is “content that no conflict (or reasonably perceived conflict) arises as a result of these interests”. That does rather rely on the argument that Johnson couldn’t possibly have been influenced by Lord Brownlow’s loan because he didn’t know about it.
In the end, though, Johnson has firmer ground on which his defence will be constructed. Not just that he as prime minister is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code, although that helps, but that public opinion is not engaged. The gold wallpaper and “the prime minister’s girlfriend”, as Cummings dismissively referred to Symonds, is a frothy tabloid story which can do no further damage as long as Johnson himself ultimately paid for the excess over the usual taxpayer-funded allowance.
Cummings must know the old saying: when seeking revenge, first dig two graves. Well, he has certainly dug his own, and put himself in it, but the grave next to his remains mockingly empty.