I can’t help wondering how Boris Johnson felt as he woke up to peruse the morning papers the day after his former adviser Dominic Cummings gave evidence to MPs. Young Wilfred on one knee, Dilyn the dog possibly balanced on the other, and Cummings’ description of a shambolic and frankly amateurish governmental machine splashed across the front pages. I expect that after a degree of snorting and harrumphing, the prime minister let out a great sigh of relief. The appearance did not unleash the napalm that was expected, and the previous week’s announcement of an official inquiry had already created a valuable defensive shield.
So what did we learn?
A summary answer might suggest: 1. the government failed; 2. the prime minister is not fit for office; 3. the secretary of state for health “should have been fired”; 4. when it came to lockdowns, the UK did not hit the panic button early enough; and 5. when ministers and officials went to the file labelled “Masterplan in Case of Pandemic”, they found that it was empty.
Cummings described a “completely insane situation” in March 2020 when a bizarre cocktail of events came together on one day. While No 10 was trying to get a grip on the pandemic, news came in that President Trump wanted to launch a bombing campaign in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s fiancee was (allegedly) kicking up a fuss about a newspaper story relating to her new dog.
Those observers and analysts who dig deep into the detail of yesterday’s evidence session may well find themselves unable to see the wood for the trees; too close to the detail, too distant from the strategic manoeuvring and machinations that really need to be revealed.
Fox and lion
This was not a select committee evidence session in anything like the traditional sense. It was the first public round of a blame game that is likely to run and run (and run). It was Cummings engaging in what political scientists would refer to as “anticipatory accountability” by attempting to define and frame the debate in ways that seek to engender trust and respect while also (and usefully) pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.
This was Cummings at his most magnificent and Machiavellian: a quite beautiful case study in the art of planting seeds and setting traps. The fox is good at avoiding traps, the lion good at getting out of traps – as Machiavelli wrote – but it takes a very rare political animal to set a snare with quite the guile and cunning that Cummings achieved.
To truly understand what happened in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House it is necessary to grasp three issues – scapegoats, shields and salvation.
The COVID crisis has stress-tested the British political system. In many ways, it passed the test and deserves great praise. SARS-CoV-2 was a completely new virus – in humans, at least – and decisions had to be taken under huge pressure, based on imperfect information. Yet within weeks of the new virus emerging, its genome had been sequenced and specific tests developed. Within a year, new vaccines had been tested, approved and rolled out. It’s too easy and too simplistic to write COVID off as the latest instalment of the blunders of our government. And yet mistakes have been made, and this generally means that at some point someone will be expected to carry the can.
The low-trust high-blame adversarial British political system (and its public) will demand a scapegoat or a sacrificial lamb. What we saw from Cummings was an attempt to assist in the fine-tuning of the crosshairs. He can’t pull the trigger now he has been ousted from his job at No 10 – but he can help direct the gun.
And, to be honest, this is a blame game that has been smouldering for some time. Politicians, advisers, officials and “the experts” have all been quietly contemplating the tale they will tell when the combined forces of the scrutiny industry come knocking on their door. With this in mind, one of the most interesting glimpses into the inner dynamics of the blame game came yesterday with Cummings’ comments about how he thought Matt Hancock had used his scientific advisers as a “shield” for governmental failings at Downing Street press conferences. Only time will tell whether “the experts” who became the public face of the pandemic quite understood how they might come to be pawns in a far bigger blame game.
Such thoughts bring me to a final focus on salvation. Seeking salvation from the potentially pathological impulses of public accountability (witch-hunts, pitchforks, “gotcha!”) is a game that all politicians have no choice but to play. But the game played by Cummings in front of the select committees also smacked of seeking salvation. If not quite a rebirth, this was clearly part of a rebranding exercise.
This was a seven-hour mammoth mea culpa that was top-and-tailed with apology and regret. Was this the same Dominic Cummings who looked so shady and shifty in the garden of No 10 when refusing to say sorry for his controversial trip to the north of England during a lockdown? My main thought when watching the cummings and goings in parliament was that this was as much about the rebranding and future of Dominic Cummings as it was about the government’s response to COVID.
We’ve all heard of the “Boris bounce” but could this actually be part of a “Cummings come back?”