Robert Peston

The truth about me and Dominic Cummings

The truth about me and Dominic Cummings
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It is such a relief that Dominic Cummings has gone. Not for the sake of the country or the government — you can make your own mind up about that. No, no, I’m talking about me. Over the past year or so, the abuse I’ve received on Twitter and Facebook for reporting anything perceived to have originated anywhere near Cummings has been wearing. I’ve never endorsed anything he said or did. That’s not my job, as you well know. My job is to tell you the thoughts, plans, hopes and dreams of the most powerful member of the government (which he was for a period last autumn). Sometimes that was briefed by him, often it was gleaned from old-fashioned reporting. But so triggered are some by him that even sophisticated opponents extended their hate to the chronicler, me — which I ignore, though it’s a dull background noise. Just days before Cummings quit, the virtual world infected the real world, when a posh thirtysomething bloke on Hampstead Heath approached me with his hands in prayer, ‘begging’ me to stop being Cummings’s ‘stenographer’. I pretended not to notice. He hadn’t banked on my partner Charlotte Edwardes. She may at first glance appear mild-tempered, but she was moved to explain — in explicit terms that I won’t print here — exactly how journalism actually works, and cautioned him on the dangers of social media echo chambers. I feared for him, especially when he asked if she was part of ‘Boris’s inner circle’. He backed away with the lamest rejoinder: ‘I am glad you have a girlfriend who stands up for you.’ Actually so am I, you sexist twit.

One day Johnson may regret the loss of Cummings. Because he performed one service that money can’t buy: in the public’s view, if something went wrong, it was the fault of the Mephistopheles of Barnard Castle. But it was Cummings who put pressure on the PM to do both lockdowns — which gels with the instincts of most British people (polls show), though the libertarian Tory right will mistrust him even more.

As C and I were driving to Dorset on the evening before Halloween, I received a WhatsApp from a source telling me that Johnson, Gove, Sunak and Hancock had met that afternoon and a new lockdown was 99 per cent certain to be announced. I needed a second source for confirmation, so texted a bunch of ministers and officials. Annoyingly I was blanked and didn’t run the story that night (though I did publish one the following lunchtime listing the assorted lockdown restrictions that the PM was expected to reveal). Imagine my surprise, then, when the Sunday Times printed that ‘the No. 10 press office learned that ITV’s Robert Peston had received a “read-out of the whole meeting”’ and that ‘immediately many in No. 10 and the Treasury suspected Hancock’. Attempted political assassinations are rarely cruder than that. Hancock survived. I am not sure whether the shooter has.

At the BBC there is hope that Cummings’s departure means the government will cease a remorseless campaign to force on it a cultural re-education. That is probably naive. One senior Tory who thought about applying to be Beeb chair was warned off ‘because they just believe I wouldn’t do what they wanted, i.e. give the BBC a bit of a kicking’. They added as a by-the-way: ‘This isn’t Cummings, it’s Munira [Mirza] and her husband Dougie Smith.’ Mirza and Smith are still in Downing Street, and more powerful than ever.

So who will be BBC chair? When would-be applicants ring ministerial chums, their stock response is ‘Don’t waste your time applying, the PM has made up his mind it will be Richard Sharp’ — though a few weeks ago they were saying ‘Don’t waste your time applying, it will be Charles Moore’ (till Moore thought better of it). I asked one of the officials who knows the PM best what is motivating his approach to important public appointments. It’s this: Johnson thinks all the top jobs since 1997 went to ‘Blairites’, even when Cameron and May were in office. Now he wants his kind of Brexiter Tory to reign over our great institutions. In other respects, the former Goldman Sachs banker Sharp is a conventional establishment choice. But why doesn’t Johnson try and find women for these jobs? Did none of them vote to leave the EU? His stock response when asked this question on gender balance is, I gather, a slightly surprised: ‘But I’ve got Munira.’

This is not to say Johnson never tries to recruit women. His preferred choice to be the cabinet secretary was Minouche Shafik, director of the LSE and former deputy governor of the Bank of England. Shafik decided she’s happy where she is, creating an opening for young Simon Case. Thank goodness Johnson’s still got Munira.