After a mammoth seven hour session, Dominic Cummings' appearance at the joint science and health committee meeting has finally ended. The former chief special adviser took aim at Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson's fiancée, senior Whitehall officials and Jeremy Corbyn in three different segments focusing on the national lockdowns and Britain's test and trace system. Below are Mr Steerpike's guide to the highlights of the day...
Cummings' relationship broke down with Boris
Cummings opened up for the first time to reveal in depth why he fell out with Boris Johnson. He says his decision to quit No. 10 was linked to Carrie Symonds, Johnson's partner, trying to change various Downing Street appointments. In particular, he says she was trying to change the outcome of one official hiring process in a way that was 'completely unethical.' He also repeatedly referred to her as the Prime Minister’s ‘girlfriend’ not fiancée.
If anyone came out badly from this hearing, it was Matt Hancock. The health secretary was repeatedly lambasted by Cummings as an untrustworthy and incompetent minister who should have been 'fired for at least 15 to 20' different things and who let down the 'many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels' in his department. Cummings also, under the luxury of parliamentary privilege, cited an incident involving Whitehall's former top mandarin Mark Sedwill:
“The cabinet secretary said to the Prime Minister in almost the first meeting when he came back [from hospital]: 'Prime Minister, the British system is not set up to deal with a secretary of state who repeatedly lies in meetings.
Cummings subsequently savaged Hancock's ‘stupid’ flagship test and trace target of 100,000 tests a day, arguing that Hancock should have been fired for prioritising resources on an abstract target rather than ‘building the thing properly'. He also claimed Johnson came close to firing Hancock in April 2020, adding 'there is no good reason for keeping him'. Ouch.
Cummings went on to claim Hancock misled the Prime Minister over plans to protect care home residents. He says Hancock 'categorically told' them in March that individuals would be tested for Covid before returning from hospital to care homes. This, he says, did not happen: 'It was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to care homes.' He also claimed Hancock used Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty as 'a kind of human shield' who could be blamed if the pandemic response was mishandled and that he told Johnson:
“I said 'sack him, sack him' almost every week, sometimes almost every day. He was told though 'You should not sack him, you should keep him there because he's the person you fire when the inquiry comes along.
MP asks Cummings if he is a 'disingenuous little fucker'
Tory backbencher Paul Bristow quoted a text sent to journalist Harry Cole from a former No. 10 employee who dubbed Cummings a 'disingenuous little fucker' because the main reason for his decision to leave Downing Street was his failure to get his allies into key positions. Chairman Greg Clark pulled Bristow up on his remarks which – unsurprisingly – Cummings did not accept, adding that much of what is said in him about the media is not true.
— Harry Cole (@MrHarryCole) May 26, 2021
A former No10 colleague of Cummings writes... pic.twitter.com/5TLY3n0pON
Downing Street was in chaos in March 2020
Cummings claimed that Thursday 12 March 2020 was the day in which it became clear to him and others how badly prepared the UK was for the first wave of Covid. His account of that day borders on the farcical, claiming that key meetings with COBRA on Covid were disrupted because Donald Trump wanted the UK to join a bombing campaign that night in Iraq meaning time was instead focused on national security issues. Furthermore that day the Times ran a story about the PM and Carrie Symonds wanting to get rid of their dog Dilyn. Symonds wanted the press office to focus on that and was 'going crackers about something completely trivial' according to Cummings.
Cummings said the following day he met Helen MacNamara, the second most powerful civil servant, in Number 10. She said she had been speaking to a Department of Health official who said that there was no plan and that the government was in trouble. She said they were 'absolutely fucked' he says and that the country was heading for disaster, with MacNamara, Cummings and Warner all sharing the same conclusion.
In another section of the session, Cummings criticised the complacent attitude of the government in February 2020 – even as Covid was making its steady way across the globe to engulf the UK. He said the government was 'not operating on a war footing' on this in February with lots of people 'literally skiing.' Elsewhere he likened Downing Street in mid-March to 'a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken and you need a new plan.'
Cummings revealed he thought about resigning in the week of 16 March. He says he told figures in No. 10 that if Covid policy did not change, he would resign and hold a press conference saying that thousands of people would die. He says he had a conversation with Johnson four months later in July 2020 when he said he would leave by the end of December. Cummings told Johnson the whole system was 'chaos' and that Johnson was more frightened of Cummings having the power to stop the chaos than he was of the chaos itself. Johnson allegedly laughed and said that Cummings was right adding:
“You’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos around than the chaos. Chaos is not bad. Chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.
Cummings defends Lee Cain
The Vote Leave gang have received a lot of criticism for their handling of the media over the last two years. Former director of communications Lee Cain was presumably one of those Cummings was defending when he claimed that some of the best people in the world were working on communications during his time in No. 10. He said instead the problems were 'bad policy, bad decisions, bad planning, bad operational capability' and that Cain warned Boris Johnson not to pick a fight with footballer Marcus Rashford over free school meals. But Johnson ignored that advice according to Cummings who said:
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications. If the prime minister changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day, you’re going to have communications disasters.
Cummings explains his side of the Durham trip
In May 2020 Dominic Cummings' trip to Durham was all that certain parts of the media wanted to talk about. Today Cummings put across his own side of the account, explaining that in the autumn of 2019 he had to leave home for a few weeks because he was receiving threats. He says that subsequent threats led him to discuss his position with officials in government and he agreed to move his family out of London. After it emerged that he had left London, he held the infamous No. 10 Rose Garden press conference, admitting today that he made a mistake in not revealing the discussions around security issues which affected his decision to leave London.
Cummings wanted to resign in July 2020
Cummings claimed he was talked out of resigning months before November 2020 as others feared Johnson would simply 'let Covid rip': 'I was extremely tempted to go in the summer but various people said to me "the autumn is going to be a disaster, he's in complete let rip mode, let everything up, keep the beaches open, you’ve got to stay and try and control the shopping trolley otherwise we’re all – god knows what is going to happen.’
Will Cummings return in a Rishi Sunak administration?
Don't bet on it... Labour MP Sarah Owen asked Cummings if he was plotting a return to government in a future Rishi Sunak administration? Cummings says everyone, including his wife, thinks the less everyone hears from him in the future, the better.