I always got on well with Dominic Cummings when we worked together on Michael Gove’s education team. He did insist on calling me “Dwarf”, on account of my diminutive stature, but it was said with affection. So it’s been strange to watch him become public enemy number one following the Barnard Castle fiasco, with a reputation as a borderline psychotic thug. In reality he can be a great, if sometimes difficult, colleague. He’s smart, funny and buzzes with ideas. But in return he requires loyalty, intelligent engagement and serious commitment to change. Boris Johnson, not overburdened with any of these qualities, was always going to be an awkward match.
On Monday, with a 64-tweet thread in full flow and the media salivating at the prospect of lurid revelations, this week’s Dom circus really got going. My phone pinged away with broadcast requests. I’m pretty much the only person who worked closely with him and is prepared to speak on the record, so have ended up as the default Dom interpreter. After giving an interview to Sky News on the Tuesday morning I was slightly perturbed to see the chyron read “Dominic Cummings’ Former Co-Worker” as if surviving that was my primary achievement in life.
In that interview I tried to get across that it’s wrong to assume Dominic’s primary motivation is revenge. No doubt there’s an element of that, but his main motivation will have been to add to a narrative he’s been trying to build for years: that the civil service is completely broken and in need of drastic reform.
Once we got into his evidence on Wednesday he returned over and over to this theme. He didn’t spare the PM, who came across as a bloviating buffoon wittering about swine flu, but the most serious allegations were saved for the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office. Not only did their pandemic plan turn out to be useless but they had no plan B. His account was corroborated to me by a senior civil servant, who was in the Cabinet Office at the time, and described a scene of total panic with officials wandering around like zombies without direction or guidance.
Unfortunately for Dominic he has a tendency to undermine his acute diagnosis with an inability to accept responsibility. Though he started the session with an apology, it became clear the only thing he was apologising for was not enforcing his rightness more aggressively. This was always one of his most infuriating tendencies at the DfE: blaming everyone else for debacles he’d participated in. It has contributed to a lack of credibility - all the more frustrating because it allows Government to duck his reasonable conclusions. We do need an inquiry now. The PM is unfit for office. And we badly need more transparency.
On Thursday I was reminiscing with another former colleague about Dom’s favourite sayings (like “the worse the better” © Vladimir Lenin). I had a vivid recollection of him consoling himself after a failed plot against David Cameron’s team with an infamous IRA slogan: “We only need to get lucky once; they need to get lucky every time”.
Sam Freedman is a former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education