Will Dominic Cummings deliver the bombshell to sink Boris Johnson?

Former special adviser to lift the lid on British PM’s key decisions in handling Covid outbreak

Boris Johnson and his then-special adviser Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street in April 2021. AFP
Boris Johnson and his then-special adviser Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street in April 2021. AFP

For Boris Johnson, being under fire with the sort of accusation that would finish an ordinary political career is nothing new but the British Prime Minister has extra reasons to be dreading an appearance by his former chief adviser on Wednesday.

Dominic Cummings has promised an assault on his former boss and his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020 and warned the details he possesses will not only be potentially devastating but difficult to refute.

Current advisers look ahead to the bust-up that led to Mr Cummings leaving Downing Street in December being replayed in public but can’t sure how much damage their alienated former colleague might inflict. “Nobody’s really talking about it yet,” said one government official working behind the famous black door. “Yes, privately we’re all braced for it as we just don’t know if he has this killer historical document or what’s in it. Frankly, everyone wants this over with so we can move on and get lockdowns behind us and repair the economy.”

Dominic Cummings makes a statement at 10 Downing Street in May 2020. Getty Images
Dominic Cummings makes a statement at 10 Downing Street in May 2020. Getty Images

There will be nerves at 9.30am when Mr Johnson’s team listen remotely to his former chief adviser make an unprecedented attack on his leadership.

Never before has British politics witnessed the right-hand man of a prime minister give the public such insight into the crucial decisions that might have cost thousands of lives and devastated the economy.

Unquestionably, when Mr Cummings, 49, takes his seat in the Wilson Room at Portcullis House, London, those in government will be braced for an incendiary examination of the events of last year that could fracture Mr Johnson’s reputation.

“Nobody knows what’s coming down the track at us,” another Whitehall insider told The National. “Does he have something really damning or not?”

Mr Cummings will, according to his allies, “try and napalm” his former boss in a performance likely to be watched by thousands via Parliament TV. By midday, Mr Johnson will know how hard he has to fight the flames when he appears in the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions.

While Mr Johnson might have a troubling relationship with the truth, his former adviser will likely be forever tainted by his rule-breaking Barnard Castle trip at the height of the pandemic and his curious subsequent explanations.

The latest YouGov polling shows that only 14 per cent of voters trust Mr Cummings to tell the truth on Wednesday compared with 38 per cent who trust the prime minister.

Furthermore, the Conservatives lead over Labour is an extraordinarily healthy 18 points, Britain’s vaccination success being the main reason.

While externally the government is affecting insouciance, there is a quickening of heartbeat within Downing Street at the prospect of what damning material Mr Cummings might bring to the committee hearing.

Those palpitations won't be helped by a recent stream of tweets from the former aide, including the threat to produce a “crucial historical document” about Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic.

It will be the incendiary moment in the pair’s relationship that could either signal the demise of Mr Johnson’s premiership or yet another detonation he survives.

Downing Street hopes that this might be the last act in the pantomime in which Mr Cummings ultimately ends up as the discredited, disgruntled former employee whose blogs, tweets and even WhatsApp messages will henceforth go largely unread.

Mr Cummings' motivation is not just revenge. Those who know him say he is a man of moral integrity whose intent is to forensically detail the mistakes made to avoid them in the future.

Judging by the 29 tweets over the weekend and a searing blog, Mr Cummings is eager to ensure that the government takes his instruction.

Over the two-hour hearing, MPs will question him within the boundaries of four topics: the first lockdown; social distancing measures; vaccine development; and the events leading up to the second lockdown.

Britain’s first lockdown came on March 23 last year, when it had already suffered 331 deaths weeks after many other European countries had shut down before they had even seen a single Covid-19 fatality. Mr Cummings will say that he had been pushing for a full lockdown from March 14, the date when deaths almost trebled in a single day from 10 to 28.

He will also question the government’s apparent early plan to achieve herd immunity through people mixing and catching the disease naturally. While this plan was given some airtime by government scientists it was soon found that the National Health Service would have been overwhelmed by victims with the potential for 250,000 deaths.

Much of Mr Cumming’s ire will focus on the delay to the second national lockdown. As infections rose in September after an easing over the summer, the special adviser and leading government scientists pushed hard for a two or three-week “circuit breaker" shutdown.

The prime minister rejected the proposal fearing that the economic damage would outweigh the public health benefits. He allegedly called the proposal “mad” saying he would rather "let the disease rip”.

Mr Cummings regarded that decision as catastrophic. It was the fracturing of his strong relationship with Mr Johnson forged through their victories in the Brexit referendum and 2019 general election.

Only when the Kent variant of Covid-19 began overwhelming areas did Mr Johnson finally introduce the second lockdown in November. It was at this point he is alleged to have shouted that rather than impose a third lockdown he would “let the bodies pile up in their thousands”. The comment is strenuously denied.

Emergency services go door-to-door to distribute Covid-19 tests to residents in Maidstone, Kent. Getty Images
Emergency services go door-to-door to distribute Covid-19 tests to residents in Maidstone, Kent. Getty Images

Other targets for Mr Cummings will include the civil service for its apparent failure to prepare properly for a pandemic and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock for inadequate amounts of personal protection equipment and the ineffective track and trace system.

Inevitably, Mr Cummings’ appearance will shed more light than ever into the workings of government at the highest level. There’s a strong chance Mr Johnson will be portrayed as a ditherer, unable to make the politically harsh decisions that might have prevented many deaths.

If revenge in pushing Mr Johnson out of office is his motivation, the problem for Mr Cummings is that the British public don’t seem to care about past mistakes. The local elections took place earlier this month very soon after the scandal over Mr Johnson’s costly Downing Street refurbishment yet the Conservatives made great strides, including the capture of Labour’s Hartlepool parliamentary seat. The prime minister is riding high on the success of the vaccination programme and his appeal to many working people in Britain is strong.

Updated: May 25, 2021 11:07 AM

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