The political fallout from Dominic Cummings’ latest incendiary blog post, which has been called a “nuclear dom” in Westminster, caused some immediate tremors and is likely lead to aftershocks for weeks to come.
Months after being turfed out of Downing Street, Boris Johnson’s once most senior adviser and trusted ally has turned on him in a blame game over leaks.
The final straw seems to have been a text exchange between the prime minister and the entrepreneur James Dyson, in which the prime minister promised to “fix” a tax issue. The most explosive row, however, is focused on who leaked news of England’s second national lockdown, nicknamed the search for the “chatty rat”.
Various newspapers including the Times, the Daily Mail and the Sun reported on 30 October last year that the government was planning to announce a national lockdown.
Having denied for months that another lockdown would be necessary and after resisting Labour’s calls for a “circuit breaker” in England like the one introduced by the Welsh government, Downing Street seemed caught by surprise when the news emerged.
A Whitehall inquiry was ordered, but more than six months on, no culprit has been publicly identified. Asked repeatedly to give an update on the investigation, a No 10 spokesperson has simply said they have no new information to offer.
Who’s in the frame?
According to a coordinated briefing to three Conservative-friendly newspapers by “No 10 sources” on Friday, Johnson believes Cummings has been “engaged in systematic leaking”.
Downing Street did not deny the reports, and some have speculated that a more pro-authoritarian Cummings leaked the news to bounce Johnson into taking action. But after the direct attacks on him earlier this week, Cummings came out swinging to defend his reputation and pointed the finger of blame at another No 10 staffer.
Cummings said in his blog on Friday that a meeting was had been held last year with him, Johnson, the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, and the No 10 head of communications, Lee Cain, about the investigation. Cummings claimed Case had exonerated him and Cain, and said that “all the evidence definitely leads” to a man called Henry Newman, a special adviser who moved from Michael Gove’s office to No 10 and is a close personal friend of Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s fiancee.
Cummings alleged that Johnson was “very upset” and told him that if Newman was confirmed as “chatty rat”, he would have to fire him, which would “cause me very serious problems with Carrie”, so the prime minister suggested the leak inquiry be quashed. Johnson has since dismissed the claim and No 10 sources deny that Newman was the leaker.
Will we ever know?
The inquiry may well fail to deliver a definitive verdict on the leaker’s identity. A cabinet minister, Liz Truss, has said the investigation is still ongoing.
The Sunday Times reported MI5 as saying they had been roped in to help make a breakthrough, and that so far they had found one person who had sent a WhatsApp message from the cabinet room at around 6pm the day after the meeting where the lockdown was discussed. Present, they said said, were Johnson, Cummings, Cain, an unnamed political aide and two civil servants.
Which other leaks have aroused suspicion?
A separate inquiry has been set up into how the texts between Johnson and Dyson fell into the BBC’s hands.
The Daily Mail also revealed that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, told Johnson in a text message that UK-Saudi relations would be damaged if the British government failed to intervene to “correct” the Premier League’s decision not to allow a £300m takeover of Newcastle United last year.
It was also revealed this year that an extensive redecoration had taken place of the Downing Street flat where Johnson lives with Symonds and their son, Wilfred, reportedly of a cost up to £200,000. The issue has caused particular embarrassment because of another leaked email from a Tory donor and peer, Lord Brownlow, to the Conservative co-chairman Ben Elliot, which confirmed a £58,000 payment to the party “to cover the payments the party has already made” on renovations.
What do all these leaks tell us?
Whereas Cummings’ departure from Downing Street and a new chief of staff being brought in was meant to “professionalise” operations, it seems the old turf wars are still playing out in No 10 between those sympathetic to Symonds and to Cummings.
The leaks are damaging, but the Conservatives are far ahead in the polls. Labour is hoping that its attacks on alleged cronyism and sleaze will start to penetrate more, and stick on not just Johnson but others around him – including cabinet ministers who may be thinking about running to replace him when the time comes.
The answers to some questions are still unknown. Did the cabinet secretary really exonerate Cummings for leaking and instead blame Newman? Was the prime minister loaned money to pay for Downing Street refurbishments, to cover up an original plan for the party to pay for them? And who is responsible for the leaks causing such a headache for No 10?
Cummings is expected to appear before a select committee next month, and has promised to “answer questions about any of these issues to parliament … for as long as the MPs want”. We may not have to wait much longer for some answers.