Artillery Row Sketch

Keeping the beaches open

What did we learn about Boris Johnson’s COVID response from Didactic Dom?

Was Boris Johnson’s Cabinet made up of “useless fuckpigs”? You may have views on the matter. Or you may be offended by the very question, in which case this sketch, which deals with Dominic Cummings’ evidence to the Covid Inquiry, is probably one to skip. You have been warned. 

The question came up on Tuesday afternoon as Dom The Great And Powerful descended from Olympus to bestow his wisdom upon the mortal realm. In many ways his analysis, that the Conservatives are utterly unfit for office and should never again be trusted to handle anything more important than a paper round, felt familiar. This is, after all, pretty much the view of the Conservative Party itself these days. 

But Dom is arguably the originator of Hot Dog Toryism

But Dom is arguably the originator of Hot Dog Toryism, the act of wandering through a smoking ruin with your empty petrol can and asking loudly what caused that big fire. For years now, he has been telling anyone who’ll listen that actually, Boris Johnson was a bit of a wrong ’un, and he seems baffled that people aren’t more grateful to him, Boris Johnson’s former chief of staff, for this insight. 

Take the useless fuckpigs. Hugo Keith, the inquiry counsel, asked him if this description of the country’s most senior politicians, made to Johnson in August 2020, was an overstatement. “I would say if anything it understates the position,” Cummings said, apparently surprised at the very suggestion. 

But the qualification for being in Johnson’s Cabinet, under rules Cummings had laid down, was a belief that a no-deal Brexit was a good idea. Or, at least, a willingness to say loudly that this was what you believed. Cummings was disappointed to find that the only people who qualified for the job were morons or liars, but he had written the job description. 

There are many different Doms, of course. There is DecaDimensional Dom, who has already thought through the multiple branching possible futures and beaten you in all of them. There is Data Dom, who can see the truth in the numbers that escapes the rest of us. There is Dom of Doom, who will kill you and your family, burn your house to the ground and then plough salt into the ashes. 

For most of Tuesday afternoon, we got Didactic Dom, a kindly, professorial type who worried about his staff, was humble about his own mistakes, and had thoughtful comments about the structure of government. What a lovely fellow he seemed to be. His shirt was unironed, his cufflinks were on backwards, and he even had elbow patches on his jacket, just like a real genius.  

Those of us who had experienced other Doms, the Dom who vowed destruction of journalists whose stories he didn’t like, the Dom who took no prisoners, the Dom who viewed politics as war by other means, wondered if we had got him all wrong.  

And then the inquiry counsel Hugo Keith began to draw him out, suggesting that perhaps, in some way, the chaotic, backstabbing, macho culture of the building where he was chief of staff might have been down to him. 

Diplomatic Dom looked troubled. How could he be a bully or a sexist? Why, there was no female colleague who wasn’t a “brilliant young woman”. We’d heard the phrase from him again and again as he described life inside Number 10. Every problem in the building had been solved by a “brilliant young woman”. He’d had two “brilliant young women” on his own team. We heard it almost as often as we heard people reading out his WhatsApps calling all his colleagues “cunts”. 

“I was not misogynistic,” he said, discussing a time he had threatened to have a female colleague marched from the building in handcuffs. “I was much ruder about men.”

Earlier, we had heard from Dom’s mini-me, Communications Director Lee Cain. He felt that Johnson had been too influenced by the Tory press and MPs, who had quickly decided that everyone was getting overwrought about the killer disease sweeping the globe. Conservative MPs, Johnson told his team, felt Covid “is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them.” It’s one way to talk about your voter base, I guess.

Nonetheless, Cain tried to be kind about Johnson. Covid, he said, had been “the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset.” It’s interesting to ponder what might have been the right crisis for Johnson’s skillset. A warning letter from Vladimir Putin sent in Latin? The capital under siege from horny housewives? A global baby shortage?

Back with Keith and Cummings, they discussed the weeks of early 2020 when Covid was emerging as an issue. Discerning Dom had seen this sooner than many. He had told Johnson, he said, that it would be impossible to contain the virus, though he did concede under questioning that there was no evidence of him saying this, not even an edited blog post.

At this stage, Johnson had been wobbling wildly on how to fight Covid. After a meeting where Rishi Sunak had argued against a lockdown, Dom had sighed wearily of the prime minister: “He’s back to Jaws mode wank.” Johnson had long had a comic riff about how the mayor is the real hero of the shark movie, because he kept the beaches open. Now he had lost track of whether this was a joke.

They moved on to Dom’s lockdown trip to Durham. Had he informed the prime minister? Dom said he had. Here was a message from Johnson saying he didn’t. It was like one of those logic puzzles: there are two witnesses in front of you, both of them always lie. Eventually, Cummings blocked Johnson on WhatsApp. Blocking the actual prime minister! That takes a special kind of self-belief.

Some months after the Durham trip, we learned, Cummings had worried people would say: “Fuck that, I’m the idiot for taking the rules seriously.” His proposed solution to this was much stronger enforcement of the law. It didn’t seem to have crossed his mind that his famous journey might have been to blame for this shift in public attitudes. The problem was everyone else. The useless fuckpigs.

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