What do you need to be a successful whistleblower? The following. The public must be willing to give you a hearing. You may be able to sidestep the media, and communicate with people directly, but gain sympathetic treatment and you’ve won half the battle. It will be helpful if Parliament takes up your cause, too. Above all, you must be whistling a tune that others want to hear.
Dominic Cummings has failed with all of these essentials so far, save the last. To the public, he is the adviser who broke the lockdown rules he helped to dream up. To the media, he is the man who rails against their “bullshit”, doesn’t return their texts, messed around with lobby briefings and, unforgivably, crafted campaigns that cut them out of the loop with voters.
To pro-Remain Labour MPs, which is most of them, he is the villain who won the EU referendum with Vote Leave and the last election for Boris Johnson. To pro-Leave Conservative ones (now is nearly all of them) he is the anti-hero who scorned an older generation of eurosceptic MPs – all those Bills and Bernards – and dissed nearly all the rest and their main vehicle, the European Research Group.
The detail of some of these complaints is wide of the mark, but their spirit is bang on target. That leaves Cummings reliant on whistling a tune that will bring the walls of Downing Street tumbling down, like those of Jericho in the Bible story. You can be sure that he will select it meticulously.
For Cummings is nothing if not a campaigner, and will have saved the worst until last. Number Ten is haunted by the fear that he has fired off only his opening salvo to date, and will detonate a bunker-busting bomb when he appears before the Science and Technology Select Committee tomorrow – one so obliterating that even a hostile Parliament, media and public will melt at its heat.
Think Bronn and wildfire. Others are sceptical. The core of their case is that Cummings is emotionally illiterate: that he doesn’t understand that the Government’s vaccine triumph is everything – not least because Brexit Britain, the country that he helped to create, is among the world’s top performers. The failures are nothing, at least by comparison.
We can already see how Whitehall will deal with him, in its response to his claim that herd immunity was a strategy. No, no, says Jenny Harries, until recently the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, this is a misunderstanding. The Government didn’t aim for herd immunity, you see: it’s not an end that governments aim for. It’s simply an end that happens.
That’s our paraphrase, not her words – but it’s a fair summary and here they are. (And note that she has caveated them by adding that she would not have been in “most of the high-level” meetings). In this muddying of waters, we catch a glimpse of the swamp that is the coming public inquiry.
ConHome isn’t convinced by the charge that Cummings has missed how the Lilluputians of Whitehall are binding him down with a thousand cords. He knows this – and Boris Johnson – only too well. But he just doesn’t care. He wants revenge, and will take any chance to get it, however long the odds.
This painting in primary colours, this black-and-white view of the world, is both Cummings’ strength and weakness. Which isn’t to say that he can’t paint with a wider palette when he wants to, or that his mind isn’t subtle or his conclusions unresearched: the very opposite. Indeed, there is an awesome quality to him.
James Graham’s Brexit: the Uncivil War picked this up. It opens with Cummings picking up noise in the ether, like a wireless picking up a signal – straining for it with a concentration that is almost clairvoyant. It is the chat and muttering of some 60 million people. Later in the film, he lies down, his ear pressed to the ground, in order to hear it better.
This is the operator who, in the wake of the murder of pro-Remain Jo Cox, killed during the referendum campaign by a man who in court cried “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, told Vote Leave staff that the outcome would be unaffected. He is the great centre-right intuiter of our times: the architect, first, of that Vote Leave 2016 campaign and, later, of the Prime Minister’s 2019 strategy.
Like Theresa May, Johnson didn’t deliver Brexit on time. She promised it by March 29th of that year. He pledged it by October 31st. The British people judged that May’s heart wasn’t in honouring the referendum decision but that Johnson’s was. Which is why they gave him a stonking majority of 80 later that year.
Cummings was instrumental in conveying the Prime Minister’s intent to the public – for example, through the prorogation gambit. He returned with a re-elected Johnson to Downing Street proven as a campaigner (were there any doubt) but unproven as an administrator, a deliverer. Would he have been one? The evidence is inconclusive.
On at least one specific, the evidence was promising. By the last few months of his tenure, Cummings was concentrated on the delivery of lateral flow tests: it happened, and they helped to shore up a test and trace strategy that was tottering. The period between the general election and those months is too brief a period from which to draw a wider conclusion.
What weighs against him is his willingness to smash convention to get results. For all turns on just how much convention one is willing to smash. The idea of a Conservative revolution is a paradox; the prospect of a permanent one un-Tory – if by that one takes, as Enoch Powell did, a view of Britain which “regards authority as immanent in institutions”.
Cummings was ultimately unwilling to work with Johnson because Johnson was unwilling to work with him – to allow Cummings to operate as a kind of Chief Executive, with himself as a kind of Chairman. The question is,” says Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Johnson’s answer was: “me”, which is understandable. All the same, good jockeys ride difficult horses, and the Prime Minister’s failure with Cummings was one of patience, vision and humility. For his former Chief Adviser brought a quality to the Government that most Ministers and officials lack: purpose. Without it, the Prime Minister risks lapsing into mediocrity.
Cummings is in deadly earnest about changing things. He wasn’t simply there for the ride, in and out before making money. That quality is rare and precious. And wasted. Cummings has spent his career blasting the lobby, but is now broadcasting to it – making his points via Twitter to be picked up and run with.
He is a genuine outsider become the ultimate insider, at least to an indifferent public, who know him only as that bloke who went on a spin to Barnard Castle. The despair of Remainers is now their hope, since they want Johnson out, too. But who wants to listen to someone now driven by getting even, rather than others’ good?
In Cummings v Johnson, we see the man who has won every campaign he has fought versus the man who has crushed anyone in his way. Maybe Cummings will ignite his wildfire tomorrow. More likely, he is like the ladder in Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy: once you’ve climbed it, you don’t need it any more. Johnson climbed Cummings and cast him away.