Robert Peston

The truth about Boris’s ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ comment

The truth about Boris's 'bodies pile high in their thousands' comment
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There is an incredible amount of hysteria and noise being generated by the conflict between Boris Johnson and his former chief aide, Dominic Cummings. So maybe it is useful for me to share what I know about three big claims:

1) The charge that Prime Minister did say he would rather see 'bodies pile high in their thousands' than order a third lockdown (as reported in the Daily Mail); 2) The cabinet secretary Simon Case still believes Cummings may be the 'Chatty Rat' who leaked details about November's lockdown; 3) the refurbishment of the Prime Minister's flat was originally to be funded by Tory party donors, even though on Friday the Prime Minister said he had been paying for it. 

To be clear, Downing Street has issued a straight denial that the Prime Minister ranted in that extreme way about how there would never be a third lockdown (which, of course, there has been). That said, I am told he shouted it in his study just after he agreed to the second lockdown 'in a rage'. The doors to the Cabinet room and outer office were allegedly open and supposedly a number of people heard. I am bothering to repeat this assertion about what the Prime Minister said because two eyewitnesses – or perhaps I should say 'ear witnesses' – have corroborated the Daily Mail's account to me. Also these sources insist they did not brief the Mail, so that suggests there are three sources. Second, in respect of the so-called 'Rat' and the 30 October leak that a lockdown would be imminently announced, I was texted by a source at 18.30 on that day as follows: 

'I understand that a long Covid meeting between PM, Chancellor, Gove and Hancock was held this afternoon. 99 per cent likely there will be a full national lockdown from next Wed or Thurs, currently expected to last until 1 Dec.'

As it happens, that was all true, though it would not be confirmed until the following evening, after the government frantically scrambled to put flesh on the policy so that it could be announced. I can tell you that the text was not from Cummings or anyone within a mile of him. And the reason I can share that with you, without breaching journalistic etiquette, should be obvious: if the text had come from Cummings, I would have put the news straight out, since he was a 'horse's mouth' authority on this stuff. But I didn't broadcast or write about the lockdown until the following day, when – having spoken with a series of ministers and officials – I was then in a position to disclose in detail the terms and timing of the lockdown. I am certain the cabinet secretary already knows Cummings wasn't my source – since he has seen the phones of all relevant suspects, and will therefore have read my texts to a very large number of officials and ministers seeking comment and secondary sourcing for the lockdown revelation. 

As I said, I wouldn't have needed to send those texts if Cummings had been the source. Make of that what you will. But the 'chatty rat' who contacted me was not Cummings. Third, I asked the Prime Minister at a press conference a few weeks ago who originally settled the invoices for the refurbishment of his apartment. He pointedly did not answer – though at the end of last week a government minister said for the very first time that the Prime Minister had been shouldering the costs. 

Cummings claimed on Friday that the Prime Minister's original plan was for donors to pay to redecorate and refurnish his Downing Street home. The unanswered question is whether donors – or anyone other than the PM and the Cabinet Office – settled the decorators' initial bills, which ran to tens of thousands of pounds. There is a payment and audit trail. So the explosive question – who originally paid – can be definitively answered. If the PM and Cabinet Secretary want it answered.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog.

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