“Dom Cummings was right,” Matt Hancock began, “to set out in full detail how he made his decisions in very difficult circumstances.”
Oh, no, hang on, that was last year. Older readers will recall that in May 2020, Dominic Cummings was the “entirely right” hero of Covid, who drove through the night to personally carry the disease to the north east of England which had, in those dark days, been unforgivably left behind by the virus.
Fast forward to May 2021, and Cummings is now an obvious charlatan, a danger to himself and others, a wrecker who should never have been allowed anywhere near government. If only Hancock and the rest of the Cabinet had been superforecasters, they might have realised that spending political capital defending Cummings would prove to be a terrible investment. You can see why he thinks they’re all idiots.
The House of Commons was, on Thursday, suffering the after-effects of Cummings’s epic evidence session the previous day. Its main target, Hancock, was there to address Cummings’ criticisms of him. These are, in summary, that he is a terrible minister, a dishonest fool, an absolutely appalling human being, and possibly the only person in the government worse than Boris Johnson. He doesn’t like him.
Few of these things are sacking offences in any government, and we have yet to find out if anything is a sacking offence in Johnson’s.
Hancock’s statement was full of not-very-subtle digs at Cummings. He referred to “the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed,” leaving the words “unlike that bald freak” unspoken, but so clear that they may yet appear faintly in Hansard.
He said the vaccine delivery was on track. “Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government,” he said, somehow managing not to add “not writing 20,000-word stream-of-consciousness blogposts about the Apollo missions, you self-regarding twerp”.
“The best way through is to work together with a can-do spirit of positive collaboration,” he went on. The words “not an atmosphere of constant terror mixed with management theory, as though you were the love-child of Cersei Lannister and David Brent” really didn’t need to be said out loud.
Jonathan Ashworth, for Labour, listed the charges against Hancock: that 25,000 people were moved into care homes in March and April 2020 without being tested for Covid; that asymptomatic transmission was understood much earlier than Hancock has claimed; that there were insufficient supplies of protective equipment for NHS staff.
One MP congratulated Hancock for having achieved so much despite Cummings, as though he were a natural affliction
Hancock wisely steered clear of the detail. “These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true,” he said. “I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”
His voice cracking a little, he went on: “Every day since I began working on the response to the pandemic last January, I have got up each morning and asked: ‘What must I do to protect life?’” To some, that sounded a little ridiculous, but the Sketch can imagine Hancock saying it in the bathroom mirror, just after his usual mantra of “You’re a tiger!”
From here, it was largely an easy ride. However much readers may hate Cummings, it is nothing to the loathing that Tory MPs have for him. Even if they disliked Hancock on Wednesday morning they were determined to rally round him on Thursday. Jeremy Hunt set the tone, pointing out that Cummings had yet to provide evidence to back up his claims.
The slight trouble here is that, while Westminster is always after smoking guns and killer documents, this is a scandal in which there are actual bodies, and we all know where they are buried.
“So many of the allegations are unsubstantiated,” Hancock said. But so many others aren’t. People with a virus that was most dangerous to the elderly were sent into care homes for the elderly.
Tories didn’t care. Cherilyn Mackrory congratulated Hancock for having achieved so much in the face of Cummings, as though he were some kind of natural affliction, rather than the man Johnson appointed to be his chief adviser. Mike Wood chucklingly noted that things seemed to be going a lot better in government these days, and asked if Hancock was aware of what might have changed.
It was all terribly jolly. Tories thanked Hancock for visiting their constituencies, and Hancock replied that it had been lovely to come. He might have been the minister for sport, reporting back after a successful Olympics. Labour MPs tried to bring him back to the dead people, but Hancock floated above it, bathing in the love of the Conservative backbenches. William Wragg attacked people who had changed their position on Cummings in recent days, but this turned out to be an attack on the Labour benches, rather than the entire Cabinet.
It took Labour’s Rushanara Ali to bring Hancock down to earth, reminding him that the official Covid death toll is 128,000, and pointing out that she had lost five relatives to it. He sobered up a little: “The pandemic has taken far too many people away far too soon.” Then Barbara Keeley asked if he had known people were being sent into care homes without tests. He carefully avoided answering.
While Hancock is keen to talk vaccines, Cummings has, perhaps only briefly, taken the conversation back to less happy moments. Perhaps, at some point, the decisions of March 2020 will bear a harvest for those who made them. For now the Health Secretary seems safe, but, as Cummings could tell him, Johnson will happily throw anyone overboard if it’s convenient.
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