“We’re heading for total and utter catastrophe,” Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, told his colleagues on the evening of Thursday 12th March 2020.
Or as Helen MacNamara, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, put it when she burst into the meeting he was holding with two of his scientific advisers: “I think we are absolutely fucked.”
This is politics as a disaster movie. In his evidence today to MPs, Cummings made Downing Street sound like the control room of a space ship which is hurtling towards oblivion while most of the senior people on board go on convincing themselves, thanks to the operation of almost irresistible groupthink, that no course correction is required.
The captain, Boris Johnson, is “about one thousand times too obsessed with the media to do his job”, and has only become Prime Minister because the other candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, was even worse.
“A choice between two people like that,” Cummings said, “is obviously a system that’s gone extremely badly wrong.”
And as MacNamara has just announced: “There is no plan.”
Cummings proceeds to “press the panic button”, but will it be too late? For a long time it seems that it will be. Today’s dialogue, though often riveting, will have to be cut before this picture makes its way to a big screen near you.
The Department of Health pretended it had prepared for the pandemic, but instead collapsed under the strain, unable even to obtain sufficient supplies of Personal Protective Equipment.
By Cummings’ account, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, lied that “everything is fine on PPE,” and then lied again, blaming the shortages of PPE on Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of the NHS.
How would he rate Hancock’s performance, Rosie Cooper (Lab, West Lancashire) wondered, somewhat superfluously.
Cummings: “I think the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things.”
And Cummings did what he could to get this message across: “I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister he should be fired. So did the Cabinet Secretary. So did many other people.”
Meanwhile a small number of brilliant people wrestled to regain control of the stricken space ship. Cummings wishes he had been quicker to understand how bad things were: “If I’d acted earlier lots of people might still be alive.”
At the start of this long session, and several times during it, he said how sorry he was for his own mistakes.
But he also described the rescue mission which he and a few others mounted, once they realised “all the claims about brilliant preparations…were basically completely hollow.”
The behavioural scientists who advised the Government insisted the British public would not accept a lockdown, which is one reason why that essential measure was not introduced sooner.
Unfortunately, Cummings pointed out, “in the field of behavioural science there are a lot of charlatans”.
That is no doubt true, but as Edmund Burke once wrote, “The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought…to be the first study of a statesman.”
It is the responsibility of ministers to judge what the people of this country will accept: whether in this instance we would accept being prisoners in our own homes, forbidden even to go to the pub, let alone to watch the races at Cheltenham or the football at Anfield.
A big call, but the buck stops with Johnson, not with his advisers, no matter how gifted they may be, and Cummings is clearly very gifted.
Spoiler alert. At the end of the movie, the space ship is saved, though only after an horrifically high number of those on board have died.
We have taken heavy casualties and had one hell of a fright, but as the credits roll, and the feel-good music plays, we are not, perhaps, quite as censorious as Cummings, played as usual by Dominic Cumberbatch, is about the manifold deficiencies of those who were supposed to be running the show.