Is spurned adviser Dominic Cummings ready to bring the curtain down on Boris Johnson’s reign as British PM?
Shakespeare-loving BoJo must be nervous he’ll suffer the same fate as Hamlet, knifed by someone he knows, as Cummings spills the beans on Downing Street’s Covid strategy on Wednesday. The former adviser is unlikely to hold back.
It’s an ancient proverb: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But it couldn’t be more apt.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a potentially perilous onslaught. But it won’t come from Britain’s opposition political parties. It will be unleashed by his former chief adviser and right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, when he appears in front of the parliamentary committee titled Coronavirus: Lessons Learnt.
Normally, this would be expected to be a turgid affair, with witnesses not expected to reveal much out of a sense of loyalty to BoJo’s government.
But Cummings doesn’t have this motivation, as he’s had a most peculiar 12 months. It began when he was rumbled for having driven 264 miles from London to Durham during a strict Covid-19 lockdown, apparently to seek childcare. As the scandal deepened, it turned out that while in Durham, he broke the rules again by going to nearby Barnard Castle with his family – in what he claimed was a drive to test his eyesight – before returning to London. Most advisers would have been fired, but Boris opted to protect him.
Cummings always intended to leave his job by the end of 2020, but his departure was premature and distinctly odd, after an apparent disagreement with BoJo’s partner Carrie Symonds. There was widespread surprise when he was pictured outside Downing Street with a cardboard box containing his possessions last November.
Things then remained relatively quiet until Boris ended up in a scandal of his own making, with unanswered questions about who paid for the expensive refurbishment of his official residence. Suggestions persist that influential donors were responsible.
Cummings popped back up to reveal that the original plan was to create a trust to fund the work – a proposal which the adviser disagreed with and over which Boris stopped talking to him. After his departure from Downing Street, Cummings recalled, “I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal.”
Cummings has subsequently also laid bare his insight into the government’s Covid-19 plan, having tweeted a chain of over 50 messages, where he’s talked candidly about ministers and plans for herd immunity, even stating that the government lied.
42/ No10 decided to lie: ‘herd immunity has never been… part of our coronavirus strategy’. V foolish, & appalling ethics, to lie about it. The right line wd have been what PM knows is true: our original plan was wrong & we changed when we realised
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) May 22, 2021
These interjections have been surprising, as Cummings was always a shadowy figure. But he obviously feels aggrieved about the way he left No. 10 and has dispensed with any spin or subtlety. He is evidently prepared to put what he knows into the public domain, so it seems virtually guaranteed he will do the same in front of Wednesday’s committee.
It’s not so much that he will point to the UK’s muddled response to the pandemic. That much is already obvious, with 128,000 dead – the highest total in Europe – and numerous disastrous efforts to supply PPE to those who needed it.
What Cummings can shed light on that no one else can is what Boris said and did. He had a ringside view and even teased in one now-deleted tweet: “I’ve got the only copy of a crucial historical document from covid decision-making.”
This intrigue is what this might mean for Boris. So far, he has proven to be a Teflon Don, marred by sleaze and controversy, but none of it harming him at the ballot box.
He had a raging argument with his partner that required the police to attend. There’s debate over who paid for his New Year holiday to the Caribbean island of Mustique. There are also claims he said that he would rather see the “bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown. And of course, there’s the hullabaloo over who paid to renovate his flat, along with the shock that he and his partner have spent £27,000 on luxury organic food in eight months, delivered under the code name ‘Alex’, which is his real first name. Some reports suggest even that bill was paid by someone else.
He still managed to guide the Conservatives to victory in the recent Hartlepool by-election, a bellwether for the mood of the country. The opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer has failed so badly to make any impression, he’s considering doing a reality TV show to boost his profile, while many of the population would struggle to even name the leaders of the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.
Whether it’s down to the bungling charm, the spontaneous quotes or entertainment value, it seems that Boris has no credible rivals. But one person who can fatally wound him is Cummings. It’s one thing for allegations to swirl around via unnamed sources, but it’s quite another when the PM’s former right-hand man steps up to the plate.
Boris can’t claim Cummings has no way of knowing what went on. He valued his input and that’s why he shielded him over the Barnard Castle debacle, when the media and public called for him to be sacked.
The irony is devastating, as Cumming is the man who plotted Boris’s path to power. Previously he steered the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum and managed to seal victory, with Boris as the frontman. They repeated the trick to bounce into Downing Street. Cummings devised the strategy and implemented it, while the prime minister used his personality to soften the edges. So make no mistake: the one person BoJo does not want shooting from the hip right now is Cummings.
He’ll also be aware there is a Shakespearean element to this. As a fan of the bard, he’s preparing to release a long-awaited book about him. (Indeed, it’s rumoured that Boris skipped important Covid meetings to finish the manuscript, as he needed the money to pay for his divorce).
Either way, he could be about to see life imitate art. Claudius didn’t hesitate when it came to killing his brother, King Hamlet. The seemingly untouchable PM never thought it would be his former confidant who could potentially deliver a killer blow. Britain will be watching intently on Wednesday to see how Cummings’ most dramatic act yet on the big stage plays out.
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