“We’re going to have to coarsen our language somewhat”, said Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the Covid inquiry, as he began his interrogation of Dominic Cummings, yesterday; it would soon become clear why such a warning was necessary — and the same advice stands for this article.
“A bomb site”, “useless”, “feral” “a dumpster fire”, “[a] horrific meltdown”, “terrifyingly s***”, “dysfunctional”, “useless f***pigs, morons and c***s”. That was how Cummings described the various arms of the state he interacted with during the pandemic in private messages revealed yesterday. Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor denied his language contributed to any failings, but apologised for it regardless. Still, he insisted, his language reflected “a widespread view amongst competent people at the centre of power at the time”.
Cue a string of articles outlining the “[insert number here] bombshell revelations” from the Cummings’ appearance before the Covid inquiry. Of course, there can be no doubt, Cummings‘ testimony yesterday was equal parts coruscating and captivating — as he launched into stinging broadsides directed at the culture of Whitehall governance as well as a litany of old foes.
And, as Boris Johnson’s de-facto chief of staff during the pandemic years, we know Cummings was heavily involved in the decisions made at Downing Street during this period. His testimony confirmed as much; in fact, commentators might have hitherto been understating his influence.
One document drawn upon by Keith and brandished before Cummings was an email which appeared to show Johnson’s former chief adviser attempting to control correspondence heading to the prime minister on Covid. The newly-disclosed email, justified by Cummings’ suggestion that No 10 officials were spending “too much time in crap meetings”, read: “Any Chair brief on anything related to [Covid 19] including [the Cabinet Office] and [Treasury] must be cleared by [Tom] Shinner or me — NOBODY ELSE.
“Without radical changes further disasters are guaranteed”, Cummings’ email closed.
Yesterday, Johnson’s former confidant-turned-nemesis further justified this decision by describing the Cabinet Office as a “bomb site” during the pandemic. “This [was] causing chaos, there [had] to be some — a formalised system to actually grip this, because the Cabinet Office was a dumpster fire, and Shinner was extremely able”, he added.
He also described the move as “one of the single, probably handful, of best decisions I made in the whole nightmare”.
Step back and, what the British public was made privy to yesterday, including newly-disclosed damning WhatsApps and Cummings and co’s oral testimony, was undoubtedly gripping. But, after the Covid inquiry adjourned one more yesterday afternoon, what had we really learnt about Johnson’s mode of governance in No 10 — and the real process of Downing Street decision-making, perhaps masked by Cummings expletive-laden WhatsApp musings?
One insight into Cummings’ own approach to government, which the ex-adviser was keen to stress early on in his testimony, was that he had told Johnson that he should conduct a reshuffle to “shrink the size of the cabinet back to where it was 100 years ago”. But Boris Johnson was not interested, and Cummings implied such a change would have streamlined decision-making in Whitehall. Keith quickly moved on.
The episode, for Cummings’ cause, was a staging post in a narrative he sought to construct before the inquiry — a rather more serious soap box than his Substack blog — that he and a few other enlightened individuals were singularly responsible for holding back a tide of Whitehall and ministerial incompetence, created by both agent and structural faults.
Cummings painted a picture of complete chaos in No 10, as advisers, ministers and civil servants battled for the prime minister’s attention with a series of novel tactics: there was, perhaps first and foremost, what Cummings described as the “Pop-in”.
“Pop-ins”, Cummings explained, “are what people in the private office referred to when the prime minister would make a decision about something, [and] some element of the system, often in the Cabinet Office, would not like what had been agreed, and in the best Sir Humphrey ‘Yes, Minister’-style, they would wait for me and other people to not be around the prime minister and they would pop in to see the prime minister and say, “Dear prime minister, I think that this decision really wasn’t the best idea, very brave, prime minister, perhaps you should trolley on it”.
In this way, at the heart of government, Cummings and co had conjured their own vernacular to make sense of Johnson’s apparent personal failings. The verb “to trolley”, for instance, was deployed to describe the PM’s tendency to career and change direction when confronted with a particular dilemma.
Later, Cummings was asked what, if anything, worked well during the pandemic, he responded, wryly: “Erm … well, in summer 2020 I spent quite a lot of time talking to British Special Forces and I found that they were exceptional”. (The “Erm …” is how Cummings’ response is recorded in the official inquiry transcript).
Pressed further, Cummings explained: “I would say overall widespread failure, but pockets
of excellent people and pockets of excellent teams doing excellent work within an overall dysfunctional system”.
The response sums up that if any future government is interested in learning how to handle a novel infectious disease, they would probably be best served looking somewhere other than Cummings’ inquiry testimony.
On Tuesday, in the end — and in spite of all of the headlines — the most revealing exchange did not come during Cummings’ testimony, but in the evidence provided by his cooler colleague, Lee Cain.
Cain, Johnson’s former communications chief, was asked about a section of his written statement to the inquiry, in which he described the central tension in Whitehall between those advisers, officials and ministers who wanted to take a cautious approach to ending Covid containment measures, and those who wanted to unlock more quickly.
In the statement, Cain outlined how unlocking quickly was the approach favoured by the right wing of the Conservative party as well as in some sections of the printed media; he named The Telegraph newspaper as a key driving force.
Asked whether such influences played a role in the PM’s decision-making around September/October, when officials considered whether or not to have a circuit break lockdown, Cain responded, simply: “Yes”.
He added: “I think the prime minister was torn in this issue. If he would have been in his previous role as a journalist, he would probably have been writing articles saying we should open up the beaches and how we should get ahead with getting back.
And I think he felt torn where the evidence on one side and public opinion, and scientific evidence was very much ‘Caution, slow, we’re almost certainly going to have to do another suppression measure’
But Cain disclosed how the “rump of the Tory party was pushing him hard in the other direction”. He went on to criticise the “Eat Out to Help Out” policy, which now-PM Rishi Sunak patronised and championed.
On this point, there was another important revelation yesterday which showed how extra-Whitehall factors were influencing key decisions. During Cain’s testimony, an extract from former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries from December 2020 was quoted. It read: “Chief whip says ‘I think we should let the old people get it and protect others’. PM says ‘a lot of my backbenchers think that and I must say I agree with them!”.
Ultimately, these points of evidence show that the debate over Covid policy was rather broader than Cummings described in his testimony — with his dual focuses on the PM’s failings and the Whitehall “system”.
Beyond concocting headlines for parliament-deprived journalists, it is the Covid inquiry’s job to unpick and historicise pandemic-era decision-making; and this is a story best told, not only through the prism of the actions of Dominic Cummings or Boris Johnson — or of squandered opportunities to see the cabinet shrunk — but by taking into account a myriad of factors and influences, even those which originate far beyond Cummings’ much-loathed “system”.
As Professor Tim Bale has noted, there may be a tendency after the testimony yesterday to retreat into a “great man theory” view of Covid governance, where Johnson’s own failings are viewed as the crucial, even sole, determinant of pandemic policy.
But, as the Covid inquiry is piecing together, the truth is far messier. Any comprehensive view of pandemic-era decision-making will need to include factors far beyond Johnson’s personal failings or the fact, as Cain described, that a novel coronavirus “was the wrong crisis for the prime minister’s skill set”. That, after all, was surely news to nobody.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.