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For a man caricatured as an evil genius, there is a distinct lack of genius in Dominic Cummings’s evil plan to get rid of the Prime Minister. As MPs congregated in the restaurants and cafés of Parliament on Tuesday, there was a growing consensus that Cummings, having pushed Boris Johnson to the brink, may now have overplayed his hand.
His zealous offer to testify on oath that Johnson ignored warnings about a drinks party in No 10 was meant to be a coup de grâce – but, instead, it appears to have helped shore up the PM’s precarious position.
Because if MPs are forced to choose sides between Cummings and Johnson, there will only ever be one outcome.
Angry as they may be with their leader, virtually no Tory MP, member or voter is likely to trust the word of Cummings, universally loathed over his Barnard Castle trip – and his wanton attempt to get rid of his old boss may well backfire.
“There’s definitely been a shift in the way people are looking at this,” one former minister said.
“Constituents are starting to email me, complaining that Cummings is breaking confidentiality, and there has been a swing of sympathy towards the PM.
“People can see that Cummings is a man who has only one objective in life, and that’s his personal vendetta against the Prime Minister. It’s a real turn-off.”
Cummings’s main claim to greatness is that he could read the public mood over Brexit at a time when mainstream politicians were convinced the country would vote Remain. He is undoubtedly an effective campaigner, but recent evidence suggests his judgment has been clouded by the red mist that descended when he was given his marching orders in November 2020.
His attempts to bring down the Prime Minister have been so haphazard that Cummings does not appear to know what will resonate with the public and what will fall flat. Where most would-be assassins might use a sniper rifle, his weapon of choice is a blunderbuss.
Critics say Cummings has blasted birdshot at the Prime Minister for 14 months, before stumbling upon the one piece of evidence that has proved the most damaging.
He leaked details of payments for the Downing Street flat refurbishment, he told MPs Johnson had said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order another lockdown, and he accused him of treating Covid like swine flu at the start of the pandemic.
It was only when he was trying to defend his own presence at the so-called cheese and wine party in No 10 in May 2020 that he tweeted details of the “socially distanced drinks” party five days later – that he said did break lockdown rules. Even then, mention of the party on May 20 was bundled up with a series of other rants against the Government in a blog post by the former adviser, and it did not contain the incendiary “bring your own booze” email from Johnson’s principal private secretary that was obtained by ITV News days later.
One veteran Tory backbencher said: “People just see Cummings as being completely untrustworthy. They think he lied over his trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, and people are asking what exactly he was doing to stop all these parties, given that he was such a major figure in Downing Street at the time. Somehow, everything he attended was a works thing and everything he didn’t attend was a party. People can see through him.
“When Cummings broke lockdown rules and went to Durham, I received a tsunami of emails from people. This has been nothing like that.”
Johnson knows, however, that if there is a smoking gun, Cummings was almost certainly there when it was fired, and what makes Cummings so dangerous is, unlike other operators, he has no reason to hold back.
Unencumbered by such base hindrances as loyalty or the need to get another job, Cummings, who has family wealth to fall back on, is prepared to do what it takes to bring down Johnson, no matter the cost to his own reputation.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating “partygate”, will interview Cummings over his claim that the PM was warned the May 20 event would break lockdown rules. Johnson has denied this outright, and neither Gray nor anyone else is likely to place more weight on Cummings’s word than that of the PM. But what if Cummings has held back a piece of evidence to set a trap for his prey?
Cummings has said there are “many other photos of parties after I left yet to appear”. Rumours are swirling around Westminster of a video of Johnson at the May 20 event. If it exists, Cummings or an ally might be waiting for Gray to exonerate the Prime Minister – and for him to address the Commons – before releasing evidence that might show he has misled Parliament. Downing Street made it clear yesterday that Johnson would quit if he was found to have misled Parliament, saying that “the ministerial code is very clear on this point” and that the Prime Minister “abides by that”. It suggests the PM and his aides are supremely confident that Gray will not conclude that Johnson lied to Parliament, and that Cummings does not have evidence to the contrary, nor will there be any substance to his claim that other witnesses will “swear under oath” that the PM lied.
Cummings does have a track record when it comes to boasting of corroborating evidence. When he told MPs about the “bodies pile high” comment, he suggested others would back his version of events – but no one did so on the record. He claimed to have evidence that Matt Hancock lied repeatedly about Covid policy when he was health secretary, but failed to produce it after his marathon appearance before a select committee.
Similarly, Cummings suggested he and others inside No 10 were plotting to oust Johnson the month after his landslide general election win of 2019 – but no one has backed up his story.
Could it be that Cummings has overestimated the support he has from those he regards as allies? Or does he simply enjoy tormenting the man who had the temerity to tell him he was no longer needed?
“He is just a fantasist,” said one Tory backbencher. “A lot of people are starting to see this as a witch hunt, and that’s partly because it is all originating from Cummings.”
Meanwhile, Cummings has directly addressed Tory MPs on Twitter, telling them that they must choose a new leader and will harm their chances of re-election if they “delay the inevitable”, adding: “Tick tock…” Yet, as the MP pointed out, Cummings showed nothing but contempt for Tory backbenchers during his time in Downing Street, refusing to speak to most of them and delighting in telling them: “I don’t know who you are.”
The is SW1 code for: leadership contest is imminent, sign up early if you want a seat in Cabinet, am on phone to donors & getting office set up, there has to be one non-brexit nutter in last 2 https://t.co/bXlK7RbQZM
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) January 18, 2022
There are certainly signs that the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues, many of whom feel let down by the goings-on in Downing Street, are irritated by Cummings’s behaviour. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, described the latest claims as “a soap opera”, and even Dave Penman, the general secretary of the civil service union, the First Division Association, appeared to choose the Prime Minister over Cummings when he said the “bitter divorce” between Johnson and Cummings had thrown up suggestions of a drinking culture in the civil service which were “very damaging, and not true”.
There is a supreme irony in the fact that Cummings’s most vocal supporters this week have been Opposition MPs. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has used social media to promote Cummings’s version of events, while SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that Gray’s report will be “not worth the paper it is written on” if Cummings is not interviewed.
Last year, Rayner said she “didn’t believe a word” that came out of Cummings’s mouth, while Blackford said there was “nothing about Mr Cummings that is exceptional except his complete inability to realise he broke the rules”.
Cummings has told friends he will not stop until Johnson is gone, and it is still too early to say if he will play an instrumental role in that. For now, however, the curtain has been pulled back on Dom, the Great and Powerful – and his reputation as a political savant might never recover.