The World According to Dom
The main point of Dominic Cummings’s seven-hour testimony in Westminster this week was just one line: ‘Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.’ Anyone who has paid attention to the government’s pandemic management may find this late admission, and the dropped jaws with which it has been received in some sections of the press, frustrating. Didn’t we know this already? Didn’t we know that delays in locking down were compounded by ministerial incompetence, prime ministerial laziness and a deep-seated instinct to do nothing to interrupt the flow of capital? That Number 10, in the grip of British exceptionalism, refused to learn from abroad? That track and trace failed, and that Covid patients were regularly discharged from hospital into nursing homes without tests, with fatal results?
We knew. But only for a given value of ‘knowing’. In Britain, a fact can be known quite widely but not enter the category of publicly known facts unless sanctioned and repeated by sections of the press or the political class. The transition can be difficult, and may be obstructed by a government’s simple refusal to acknowledge the fact. The road from publicly known fact to political consequence is even less travelled. Cummings trailed his appearance before the select committees in an interminable Twitter thread, ‘revealing’ that the government’s initial policy had been ‘herd immunity’. Laying aside the ambiguity of the phrase, the government’s chief scientist said as much to both the BBC and Sky early in the pandemic; only through carefully cultivated amnesia could the press treat it as a revelation.
Those sceptical of Cummings’s reinvention as a disgusted truth-teller may wonder about his emphasis, and ask who is missing from the story. His testimony focused strongly on early decision making, especially the chaos inside Downing Street before the first lockdown was imposed. It is true, and worth repeating as it slips out of the domain of public fact, that the first lockdown was delayed by many days after it was obviously necessary; Johnson did not act decisively, but prevaricated and temporised. People died as a result. Conventional wisdom suggests this is ‘priced in’ to public opinion as a government trying seriously and desperately to respond to an unexpected situation: Cummings’s emphasis on Johnson’s distraction and disorientation is surely meant to leave a question mark over ‘seriously’. He put less stress on the repetition of the same mistakes, the same prevarication, in the second wave.
In the world according to Dom, this is because what matters is character. The errors revealed in the first days of the pandemic were bound to be repeated because they were caused by the dispositions of the people making the decisions. This lent some of Cummings’s answers a pantomime, point-missing quality: in response to a series of adroit questions from Dean Russell about the structural and institutional lessons that might be derived from his experience, he could only return to Johnson’s personal flaws, ‘like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other’.
It’s true that ‘don’t elect Boris Johnson’ is a useful first step for dealing with any problem, but it is a little galling to hear it coming from the man who masterminded Johnson’s rise. There is a general vein of self-exculpation here: he issued a general-purpose statement of contrition for having fallen ‘disastrously short’ of what the country needed, but no reflection on the well-documented state of chaos, intrigue and professional anxiety that Cummings himself inculcated in Downing Street was forthcoming. Those who have lost relatives and friends may find his apologising for not being more widely listened to something of an insult.
Cummings is an unusual political actor because he feels minimal party loyalty: there is very little the Conservative Party can give him that he wants, although the absence from his account of his former employer Michael Gove – a notorious lockdown sceptic – may give a clue to his future plans. Detachment makes his testimony both more candid and more strategic than that of a special adviser who has absorbed the Westminster habit of omertà: dotted among the character assassinations were a number of claims that a determined opposition, a crusading press or a public inquiry might pursue. These include allegations of corruption on the part of Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, trying to secure jobs for her friends, and that Johnson misled Parliament by denying he’d said ‘let the bodies pile high.’
The most extraordinary vitriol and most damaging accusations were levelled at Matt Hancock: that he had lied repeatedly to colleagues over the testing of patients leaving hospital for care homes, which in fact happened ‘very partially and sporadically’, and that he was kept in post only to be a useful fall guy when an inquiry came along. At the end of the first phase of the pandemic in June last year, 16,000 people had died in UK care homes; in Germany, with twice as many people in care, the number was 3500. In May, Hancock claimed to have ‘thrown a protective ring’ around care homes from the very first days of the pandemic. It was a claim repeated by the prime minister in the Commons on 13 May. Who will be held responsible for these deaths?
The road to consequences remains long. Cummings’s credibility with the public is low – YouGov finds that only 14 per cent of the public trust him to tell the truth, compared to Johnson’s 38 per cent – and he has produced no real smoking gun, though he has promised to hand over messages and documents to the committee. He doesn’t have an obvious champion in parliament: Hancock’s statement yesterday turned into an unlovely competition between Tory MPs gushing over his achievements in office. But he didn’t deny the allegations. The defence being briefed in Westminster is that the same thing happened in Scotland, where Hancock wasn’t responsible – but the Scottish government has admitted its failure, and never made the same grand claims in the first place. Such a weak defence suggests Hancock’s reprieve may be only temporary.
Cummings’s testimony would cause real problems for the government only if the press were willing to forego writing about court drama and press the unanswered questions home, and the opposition were capable of capitalising on it. Neither seems at hand. Journalists have already begun to pronounce that the story won’t ‘cut through’, as if the way they covered it made no difference to its salience. (Why then bother to write at all?) Labour has managed to translate seven hours of lurid testimony into the most arid of process demands: that the public inquiry be brought forward. That is hardly a demand you can paint on a placard, though perhaps the party’s strategists thought its slogan of recent months – ‘we agree with the government’ – wouldn’t do the job either.
A political system that cannot enforce consequences on a government is broken. Not broken enough, according to Cummings. ‘In a well-run entity what would have happened here is essentially, in my opinion, you would have had a kind of dictator in charge of this,’ he told the committee. ‘He has as close to kingly authority as the state has legally to do stuff, and pushing the barriers of legality.’ The constraints against which Cummings is pushing here are multiple: distribution of power across the cabinet, competing Whitehall fiefdoms, political scrutiny. His defence might be that he is merely seeking efficiency in response to emergency, and only within the law, even if pushing at it. But the fantasy of the philosopher-king – or in this case, the scientist-king – is the oldest expression of oligarchical resentment at democracy there is; Parliament has already accorded to the government extensive powers to regulate all social life during the pandemic with minimal scrutiny, powers which are even then often exceeded and unequally applied by the police.
The dream of soft decisionism, of a great scientific mind untrammelled by democratic mediocrities, is a frequent theme of many of the ‘rationalist’ blogs that Cummings frequents, and has its disciples in recesses of the Conservative Party and among his Vote Leave fellow travellers. It remains a marginal element in British politics, but the most disturbing possibility raised by Cummings’s testimony is that in a broken system, where Westminster retains its vanity and pomp, but none of its ability to govern effectively or restrain an increasingly decadent executive, the idea of ‘a kind of dictator’ has some serious allure.