Dominic Cummings’s marathon appearance in front of MPs on Britain’s coronavirus response was by some distance the most extraordinary Commons event of its kind in a decade. There has been nothing to match it since Rupert Murdoch was finally compelled to give evidence to a select committee on phone hacking, back in 2011. In some ways, though, the two events were important for the same reason.
In both cases, here were immensely powerful men – dethroned in Cummings’s case, throne tottering in Murdoch’s – going through the elaborate pretence of public contrition in front of a governmental body that, at heart, they despised. In both, the glimpses into their minds were compelling. But, in both, the apparent penitent submitted to the process for a similar reason – the hope of emerging to resume their respective crusades against the liberal order.
To understand what Cummings was doing it is important not just to be riveted by his hypocrisies and his U-turns. It is also necessary to grasp the larger significance of what he is up to. At times on Wednesday, as Cummings offered news story upon news story, that was difficult. The audacity of Cummings’s attempt, in Fintan O’Toole’s succulent Shakespearean metaphor, to transform himself from the amoral manipulator Iago into the wronged innocent Desdemona is at times breathtaking. But there is method in it too.
There is a backbone of consistency in Cummings’s political career. He has always engaged in a battle against a largely imaginary elite conspiracy to hold back iconoclastic innovators of the kind he sees in the shaving mirror each morning. It takes the form of Cummings’s deep-rooted hostility to institutions – such as the civil service and the BBC – that seem to him to reproduce and strengthen the elite. It is suffused with a lone-wolf purism that enables Cummings to commit idiocies like the Barnard Castle incident and still present himself as a virtuous lone knight in an evil world.
This drove Cummings’s politics, long before the Brexit campaign. The Commons hearing shows it still drives him today, long after the Brexit triumph. When he first stepped across the threshold of the education department as Michael Gove’s adviser, Cummings is said to have promised to set the whole place on fire, such was his contempt towards what he famously dubbed “the blob”. Incineration was a suitably Wagnerian image for Cummings’s sense that it was, and still is, him against the system.
Cummings’s Twitter marathon this month – it had reached 65 episodes before he sat down in front of MPs – is full of sweeping indictments of the collective failings of others. It targets Downing Street, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Jenny Harries, political pundits, behavioural scientists, social care planning, border control policy, Whitehall, senior managers, Westminster, official secrecy and many others. Many got a second dose of his anger in the committee hearings. To Cummings, all are to some degree or other incompetents in the grip of various forms of groupthink in institutions that are being weakened by entropy.
People like him, by contrast, are holy solitaries rather than team players. Occasionally, his tweets will celebrate an ally who is deemed worthy – one is “a brilliant young neuroscientist I recruited to No 10”, another “a brilliant young woman” whose work averted some of the Covid social care crisis in 2020. Last week he approvingly retweeted that “It’s not only in actual politics that earnestness seems to be a handicap, but also in office politics and academic politics.” People like this, Cummings added, are “seen as mad/unreliable and are weeded out”.
If this makes Cummings in many ways the colleague from hell, it is important to also acknowledge that, in many respects, he was also right, more right than many of those around him, and that he had his supporters, notably the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. Cummings’s account to MPs of the shambolic unpreparedness and delay in February and March 2020 is doubtless not comprehensive and is bound to have been self-serving. But it sounds extremely compelling.
The crucial part of that account was not what it said about the failings of Johnson or Hancock, damning though it is. It was what it said about Britain’s government and the UK state. These institutions, like others in the world, were desperately badly prepared for what Covid threw at them. To a degree, this may be understandable. Covid was not the type of pandemic the NHS had exercised for.
But the state, which Cummings is not alone in seeing as structurally dysfunctional, had also been run down, unable to respond on the scale and at the speed that was needed. Even the most able political leader would have struggled with the legacy of so many cuts and so much disorganisation. Johnson was out of his depth, as were others. As a result, thousands died who need not have done so.
The immediate political question is whether Cummings has knocked the government seriously off course in any way. The answer is no. The vaccine programme has got the government and the state off the hook. Johnson has kicked the official inquiry into the pandemic into the long grass. He has no interest in accelerating it, especially now.
That is a tragedy for reformers of all kinds. But Cummings will not be surprised. He tweeted last week that the “point of the inquiry is the opposite of learning, it is to delay scrutiny, preserve the broken system & distract public from real Qs.” The lone knight will be undeterred, because railing against the system is the way he likes it.