This Government, riding high on the good news of the triumphant vaccine rollout, suddenly finds itself in a hole — and Boris Johnson is digging himself ever deeper in.
His enemies — including some in his own party — claim that the various scandals and embarrassments show he is a sleazy politician without integrity, for whom telling lies is second nature.
It still hasn’t been explained how and when the PM came up with £58,000 to pay off the costs of refurbishments to his Downing Street flat. The Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, rather limply told a Commons committee yesterday afternoon that he did ‘not have all of the facts’, though he promised a review.
Meanwhile, the Mail’s lead story yesterday that the Prime Minister privately exclaimed at the end of last October that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown has been corroborated by the BBC and ITV
Until his exit from No 10 last November, Cummings was widely considered the second most powerful man in the Government
Meanwhile, the Mail’s lead story yesterday that the Prime Minister privately exclaimed at the end of last October that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown has been corroborated by the BBC and ITV.
Mr Johnson, however, denies saying any such thing. In the Commons, the sinuous Michael Gove was rather less emphatic, saying only that he had ‘never heard language of that kind’.
These and other allegations are undoubtedly serious. But are they fatal? As far as the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat is concerned, it might be pointed out in mitigation that, although guidelines may have been broken, improvements were made to an official residence rather than Boris Johnson’s private home.
As for the second charge about bodies piling high, many sensible people at that time were warning of the catastrophic economic consequences of a third lockdown, though few of them did so in terms as brutal as Mr Johnson is alleged to have done.
But if these and other current stories call into question his good sense, his past championing of Dominic Cummings at the heart of Government suggests an even more disquieting lapse of judgment, whose consequences could be long-lived.
It was the former chief adviser who last Friday poured petrol on to a smouldering fire by writing a 1,000-word blog in which he accused the Prime Minister of being ‘unethical’ and falling ‘below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves’.
Until his exit from No 10 last November, Cummings was widely considered the second most powerful man in the Government. He is a significant adversary. He is also a bitter and vengeful man who appears to be planning to destroy Boris Johnson.
In a month’s time, he is due to appear in front of a Commons committee, where he is expected to make the grievous accusation that the Prime Minister foolishly rejected a second lockdown last autumn, thereby causing the needless deaths of thousands of people.
Before that happens, the former chief adviser could either continue to use his blog to make serious charges against the PM or leak harmful stories to the Press — or both.
He is said to have kept audio recordings of important private conversations in Government, which is an unusual thing to do. If they exist, he will surely use them as he attempts to annihilate his erstwhile master.
Even if he fails in his mission to finish off Boris Johnson, he will probably damage him. This prospect invites two questions. Why did the PM ever employ a man once described by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’? And what does it tell us about his judgment?
Cummings was far from being an unknown quantity. He had a reputation as a restless iconoclast who relished confrontation and didn’t know the meaning of the word loyalty. He had publicly rubbished Iain Duncan Smith after briefly working for him when he was Tory leader.
Although an inspired leader of Vote Leave before the June 2016 referendum, he shamelessly purveyed falsehoods. He was responsible for the exaggerated, and gratuitous, claim on the side of the Vote Leave bus that ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’. I write as a Brexiteer.
Nevertheless, despite his reputation as a man who loves to pick fights, Boris hired him as his chief adviser in July 2019 shortly after becoming Prime Minister. He valued Cummings’s exceptional intellect which bubbled with radical policy ideas that his own, more sedate mind tends not to supply.
But it didn’t take Cummings long to reveal his character. In August 2019, he summarily sacked Sonia Khan, special adviser to the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for alleged leaking. She was frogmarched out of Downing Street by armed police.
How ironic that the pugilistic Cummings is proving himself a leaker on a scale no special adviser could dream of. Simon Case wouldn’t say yesterday that he had cleared Cummings of being behind a leak last October (the so-called ‘chatty rat’) which bounced the PM into the second lockdown. However, as the Mail reports today, Cummings allegedly received a colourful text message from the Prime Minister saying that he was not a suspect.
Without doubt, in the months leading up to the December 2019 election, the maverick chief adviser was extremely useful in helping Mr Johnson to focus the electoral battle on ‘getting Brexit done’ and in building support among Labour ‘Red Wall’ voters.
If only the two men had amicably parted company then. As it was, in February 2020 Cummings precipitated the resignation of Sajid Javid by getting the suggestible Mr Johnson to demand that the Chancellor sack all his political advisers.
Why did the Prime Minister stand by his combustible chief adviser? Probably because he admired his forceful intellect and his tendency not to take prisoners. Possibly he was also a little frightened of him.
When it was revealed that his favourite had almost certainly broken lockdown rules by driving a 60-mile round trip in Co Durham, Boris stood by him. It’s hard to imagine a Cabinet minister under pressure being given the honour of a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden, as Cummings was.
Inevitably, of course, there was eventually a bust-up and falling-out. It probably wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of Boris’s 33-year-old fiancée, Carrie Symonds, of whom the PM seems more than a little in awe.
Mr Johnson had idiotically flirted with the idea of appointing Lee Cain — an abrasive sidekick of Cummings with about half the brain — as his chief of staff. Carrie led a coup against Cain, who left No 10, followed by his disgruntled colleague Dominic Cummings.
Even then Boris Johnson seems not to have got the measure of his former chief adviser. Misjudgment was piled on misjudgment. No attempt appears to have been made to remain in touch with this simmering, embittered man.
Then, last week, No 10 made the fateful error of briefing newspapers that it was Cummings who had leaked a mildly embarrassing exchange of texts sent last March between the Prime Minister and billionaire businessman Sir James Dyson.
Anyone could have told the student politicians in No 10 that Cummings would go ballistic. One of his most harmful allegations was that Mr Johnson had considered halting an inquiry in the ‘chatty rat’ affair because a main suspect was a friend of Carrie’s. If true, this suggests Boris isn’t the master of No 10.
Will all this evidence of poor judgment damage the Prime Minister? Some commentators say the public either doesn’t understand or care about what is going on. This is what Mr Johnson himself thinks, declaring yesterday that ‘this stuff’ is ‘not coming up on the doorsteps’, and last week that people ‘don’t give a monkey’s’.
That sounds dangerously presumptuous to me. The Tories have slipped five points in the latest YouGov poll. As I wrote last week, sleaze stories have a habit of mounting up before creating an irrevocable impression.
Can Boris Johnson get a grip? He needs to very soon, not least because that clear-thinking career psychopath Dominic Cummings is plotting his demise.