Cummings’s revenge plot on Johnson could hatch into terminal mistrust

London Letter: Even if voters don’t care, the explosive allegations could damage the PM

The breeding season of the common toad, when that lonesome creature plunges back into social life, is behind us and it will be a few weeks before tiny toadlets jump out of ponds all over England. Happily, the Tory toady is in season all year round and the species was on glorious display on Thursday morning as it leapt from its spawning pool on the green benches of the House of Commons to praise Matt Hancock.

The health secretary was summoned to the House to answer an urgent question about Dominic Cummings’s allegation that he lied repeatedly about the coronavirus pandemic to colleagues and the public. Opposition politicians zoned in on the charge that Hancock falsely claimed that patients discharged from hospital were tested for coronavirus before being sent to care homes.

The health secretary did not explicitly deny the charge, saying only that "so many of the allegations yesterday were unsubstantiated". That was enough for Mark Logan, the Conservative MP for Bolton North East, one of a number of places the government locked down last week because of the Indian variant, without bothering to tell anyone who lived there.

“‘When it comes to the health secretary, I’m a fan’. Those are not my effusive words; they come from some of the highest levels among our health team in Bolton,” Logan said.

“Like colleagues on both sides of the House, we have been on countless calls with the health secretary, with upwards of 100 MPs on many occasions. As he has done today, he has taken the time to respond or come back after each and every interaction with helpful advice and solutions. I say this in private, I say it in public,” he said.

The conventional wisdom at Westminster is that, despite the explosive nature of Cummings's allegations against Boris Johnson, Hancock and others in government, Wednesday's seven-hour appearance before the science and health committees will have little lasting impact.

According to this analysis, the success of Britain's vaccine rollout has persuaded the public that Johnson's government is on the right track in dealing with coronavirus and there is little appetite to dwell on the mistakes of last year. The Conservatives' good performance in this month's local elections in England has reassured MPs that Johnson remains a vote winner and an economic recovery later this year should further buoy the popular mood.

Barnard Castle

Polls show that voters do not trust Cummings and his admission on Wednesday that he lied about his notorious trip to Barnard Castle could amplify doubts about his credibility. And his criticism of Hancock on Wednesday was so incontinent that it was hard to avoid the impression that the former Downing Street adviser was on a vendetta.

Even if Cummings’s evidence does not have “cut-through” in terms of public opinion, it still has the capacity to damage Johnson and his government in a number of ways. It has increased pressure on the prime minister to bring forward a public inquiry, which will not start until later this year and may not report before the next general direction.

Cummings encouraged MPs to use the select committee system to launch their own inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and the science and health committees have already asked Hancock to appear before them the week after next. Only backbenchers sit on select committees and many of their chairs are either opposition MPs or Conservatives who have been sacked as ministers by Johnson.

Throughout their partnership in government, the central question surrounding Johnson and Cummings was that of who was using whom. Was Johnson using Cummings to help him gain power and to secure it by winning a general election and delivering Brexit? Or was Cummings using Johnson as the vehicle to implement his plan to reshape Whitehall, invest in science and smash Britain’s institutions?

Bad blood

Johnson's sacrifice of Cummings and his Vote Leave allies last year provided the answer: the prime minister was using his adviser just as he has used everyone else throughout his career. But the bad blood between Cummings and Johnson's fiancée Carrie Symonds meant that the breach could not be finessed and soothed as so many betrayals have in the past.

In his evidence on Wednesday, Cummings praised Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab, both possible successors to Johnson and exonerated his old mentor Michael Gove. It is unlikely that any of the three would bring Cummings back into government if they ever enter Downing Street, but his praise is unlikely to have been without a purpose.

One possible effect will be to deepen mistrust among the factions inside Downing Street so that Johnson, already a political loner, will struggle to work out who he can trust. Cummings’s legacy to Johnson may be a serpent’s egg of doubt, jealousy and suspicion which could hatch into the political misjudgments and missteps that can lead a political leader to defeat.