After yet another week of government leaks of private correspondence sent by the Prime Minister, Downing Street has hit back. But it's not to deny the contents of any of the messages – which range from WhatsApps with Saudi Arabia's crown prince over football to discussions with UK entrepreneur James Dyson about ventilators – it's to blame Dominic Cummings for the messages being made public in the first place. Late last night multiple papers (though notably not the Boris-sceptic Daily Mail) published briefings by a Downing Street source that Johnson's former senior aide was likely behind the stories.
A government figure tells the Telegraph that ‘if you join the dots it looks like it’s coming from Dom’ – and suggests that Cummings's motivation is likely his bitterness that since he left Downing Street 'rather than falling apart, the government has been making great progress'. While they're at it, Downing Street 'sources' have also returned to the well-trodden topic of who leaked the news of the second lockdown to the press, suggesting that the 'chatty rat' was in fact Cummings. It's worth pointing out that multiple figures – from ministers to current No. 10 aides – have also had the finger of blame pointed at them about this leak. Meanwhile, Cummings is yet to comment – but his allies say he didn't even have access to many of the leaks in question.
So, why is No. 10 responding now and what's the point of the allegations? Johnson's private messages have been weaponised by Labour this week, however, many Tory MPs felt that the Dyson story was failing to land with the public on the grounds that a Prime Minister trying to procure ventilators at a time of crisis by any means possible was not such a bad top line. One story that sent ripples through Downing Street this week was a report that Simon Case – the top civil servant in government – has suggested to Boris Johnson he change his phone number, but the Prime Minister had declined to do so.
Could some of these stories come from Dominic Cummings? Of course – although they could also come from plenty of other people. Does it matter if they came from Dominic Cummings? If the stories are true – and no one is denying the facts in them – Johnson and his team are going to have to respond to them regardless of who the source is.
It follows that today's briefing is already being read as a 'dead cat' – a way to move the conversation away from tricky questions over lobbying or ‘government by WhatsApp’ and make it about Cummings the bogeyman. Others think it is simply a misstep the government will go on to regret – making serious allegations about an individual while failing to provide evidence.
In Downing Street, the Prime Minister is said to have hardened against the Vote Leave faction since their departure – often blaming absent figures for current problems. Current aides have been asked to distance themselves from their former Vote Leave colleagues. There are particular nerves about Cummings's select committee appearance next month on the government's Covid response.
Recent efforts could reduce the impact of his evidence. But the bigger risk is that it proves to just be bad comms for the government. Reigniting a civil war with Boris Johnson’s former aides doesn't just have the potential to distract journalists for a day or make Cummings seem like the bad guy, it could also make Boris Johnson's government look as though it has still not escaped the psychodrama. At a time when the Tories are riding high in the polls and with weeks to go until the local elections, it's an odd look.