To govern is to blog

Abysmal media incompetence but something deeper is at work

Is he still going? At the time of writing, Dominic Cummings was six days into a Twitter thread about the government’s handling of Covid. It’s presumably a warm-up for his appearance before Parliament on Wednesday, when we’re assured he will attack Boris Johnson, and everyone else within a hundred-mile radius.

Cummings has long taken the view that revenge was a dish best served immediately and in huge portions. He has already provided us with stories about the prime minister’s wallpaper and his approach to questions of ethics, and it’s likely he’s going to give us a load more about his reluctance to take lockdown decisions. He’ll probably focus more on delays to the second lockdown, when the prime minister disagreed with him, than on the chaos around the first, when they were rather closer aligned.

To those who want to see Johnson held to account for a fairly dreadful 2020, and who are appalled that the success of the vaccine is rubbing off on the prime minister, this is all appealing stuff. But it’s important to understand what else is going on.

This is reputation management. After a year in which he became notorious as Britain’s best-known lockdown-buster, Cummings is trying to reinvent himself as a whistleblower and truth-teller.

There has always been a gap the size of Barnard Castle between Dom-Who-Blogs and Dom-Who-Governed

There were hints of this last summer, of course, when he marvellously edited his blog to make it look as though he’d foreseen Covid. What we’re getting now, with the performative horror at Johnson’s character and the thoughtful tweets about what the government should have done earlier, is a more thorough attempt. It’s as though Cummings is tackling the question: “What would I have done, if I’d been played by Benedict Cumberbatch?”

The result is quite attractive. We learn that Cummings was a campaigner for openness and scrutiny of government decision-making, that Sir Patrick Vallance sought his support for creating the vaccines task force, and got it. That one of Cummings’s young “misfits” wanted to take the vaccine to “human challenge trials” — deliberately exposing vaccinated test subjects to the virus — much earlier, but was thwarted by “ethicists” who were “disastrously wrong”.

There is a problem with all this, though, which is that we know what Cummings would have done if he’d been in charge, because we know what he did. He didn’t spend the start of the year trying to wake a sleeping government to the dangers of the virus. He spent it getting Sajid Javid fired as Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he wanted more control over other special advisers.

We know that at the start of March, the government’s plan was to pursue a policy of herd immunity. We know this, because it was said in press conferences in Downing Street. When I wrote this, no one complained — one special adviser even told me it was a good piece.

We know that in September, the government’s focus was on Cummings’s “moonshot” mass-testing programme. There’s nothing wrong with that. If we didn’t have a vaccine, the lateral flow tests stacked around the country might be the route to some kind of normality. But it goes against the idea that Number 10 had total confidence in vaccines coming good.

With an inquiry looming, Cummings seems to be trying to steer us away from what it is likely to uncover. “Looking at minutes does not give good insight to reality of discussions,” he tweeted. The minutes of the “crucial” 18 March meeting, for instance, do “not convey true situation, discussion, atmosphere, effects”. Well, maybe. But any historical researcher will go for the written record over memory, and with good reason.

We know that when Cummings believed his wife to be infected, and suspected he was likely to be too, he took the view that the rules he’d put in place for others didn’t apply to him. There may well be a heart-rending story behind that, but there are 68 million people in this country, and there were plenty of heart-rending stories last March.

Most ridiculous of all is Cummings’s claim to be a champion of openness. “I can think of no significant element of Covid response that would not have been improved by discarding secrecy and opening up,” he says. This may well be true, but it was still met with a hollow laugh by those who dealt with Cummings when he was in government.

There has always been a gap the size of Barnard Castle between Dom-Who-Blogs and Dom-Who-Governed. Dom-Who-Blogs is a fan of following the data and looking facts in the face. Dom-Who-Governed oversaw an administration that refused to let civil servants conduct an analysis of the likely economic impact of the proposed Brexit deal.

Dom-Who-Blogs is keen to get in front of Parliamentary committees — he’s said the MPs can have all the time they need. Dom-Who-Governed was contemptuous of them.

Cummings is trying to reinvent himself as a whistleblower and truth-teller

Dom-Who-Blogs believes that openness gets the best policy outcomes. Dom-Who-Governed tried to get around the Freedom of Information Act by using a Gmail account, and went to court to argue he was entitled to. Dom-Who-Governed treated anyone who disagreed with him as an enemy, tried to shut down parliament, fired aides who were in contact with people he didn’t like, and even claimed, hilariously, that he had a network of spies working at London restaurants to tell him who was lunching with reporters.

Some speculate that Cummings genuinely can’t see that his behaviour in government created the opposite culture to the one he wanted. For a man who has clearly read every Malcolm Gladwell book, he seems oddly unaware of his own cognitive frailties. Or perhaps he is simply utterly without shame.

We will be hearing from Dom-Who-Blogs on Wednesday. There’ll be lots of stuff about the Manhattan Project, the awful structures of government, the terrible incentives and appalling people. There will be truth in some of it. But MPs asking the questions would do well to put in a few about Dom-Who-Governed.

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