Dominic Cummings’ marathon evidence session was bad for Ministers, bad for the civil service, bad for government – and, not least, bad for Cummings, as he turned his gun on himself, so to speak, in the wake of his drive-by shooting.
That’s to say, it was bad for all of these if the public take any notice, rather than following Clark Gable: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Should they?
Some will make snap judgements about what Cummings’ evidence said about how we’re governed, whether voters care or not. Or sigh world-wearily instead, and say that it was ever thus.
Others will try to work out which politicians are damaged most. Or which civil servants and government departments are. Or whether Cummings was angling for a job under a Rishi Sunak or Michael Gove-led administration.
Others still will say that the Labour manifesto of 1983 can no longer claim the title of the longest suicide note in history. Because Cummings’ evidence has overhauled it.
Whatever your view, the very length and density of the evidence defies an instant take. Except that its core message was Martin Amis’ definition of entropy: Everything Fucks Up.
However, one point hits home immediately. Yesterday, Cummings bent the passage of time. That’s to say, he brought politics forward from the Covid inquiry – and dumped it on the floor of the Commons.
Did Boris Johnson so dismiss the virus’ threat as to suggest injecting himself with it on live TV? Did Carrie Symonds act illegally in relation to an appointment? Did Matt Hancock lie “on multiple occasions”?
Did Mark Sedwill, then Cabinet Secretary, propose “chicken pox parties” in order that as many people as possible catch the virus? Did the Prime Minister “not want a proper border policy”?
Was there never a plan to shield care homes or test those entering – contrary to assurances from the Health Secretary? Aren’t the dead and their families owed so much better? And is the key problem that haunts the British people or systems?
For on the one hand, Cummings said that the crisis required “a kind of dictator” with “close to kingly authority”. On the other, he claimed that even Bill Gates or “the most competent people in the world…would have had an absolute nightmare”.
For better or worse, Cummings’ evidence will give MPs opportunities to put all these questions soon rather than later (i.e: after the next election, in all probability, when the inquiry at last reports – by which time some of them will no longer be in the Commons).
And not just in the chamber. Whatever else can be said of today’s session, it was a triumph for the Select Committee system. Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt – an old double act that once wrote a pamphlet together – were sober, prepared and measured.
Pan the camera out a bit, and you can see how Select Committees are enjoying a revival. Major inquiries have not usually been undertaken in Parliament during recent years.
Bloody Sunday, child abuse, the Iraq War: all the main ones in the last few decades, stretching all way back to the Franks Report on the Falklands War and beyond, have been farmed out by the Executive to judges (or lay experts).
But where Hunt and Clark walked today, they will continue tomorrow. The Health Secretary faces an evidence session. Parliamentary questions will be asked of him in the Commons today. Johnson is to make a statement.
Other committees may get in on the act – just as they have over the Greensill collapse, over which a Treasury Select Committee inquiry is up and running. The Business Committee has one coming. The Public Administration Committee has already got one going.
Now have a think about who some of those committee chairmen are. Hunt, Health Select Committee: Johnson’s leadership rival (and the man in charge of pandemic prep under previous governments). Clark, Science Select Committee, who Johnson sacked from the Cabinet.
Mel Stride, Treasury Select Committee Chair, ditto. (Well, almost: as Commons Leader under Theresa May, he had the right to attend.) William Wragg, Public Administration: a persistent critic of the Government over lockdown.
What an irony it is that Cummings, who once refused to attend a Select Committee, and was threatened with a summons to the bar of the Commons, has been falling over himself in his eagerness to give evidence.
And that he, the razer of institutions – not least Parliament – has helped to restore it. Or at least given it a chance to revive itself, and get ahead of an inquiry before its members have even been appointed.