Three days on, we’re all in a better position to take a view of Dominic Cummings’ fireworks display: which of his rockets illuminated the landscape, which were damp squibs – and which smoulder in the grass, ready suddenly to flare up.
Perhaps there isn’t all that much difference between the first and second. A firework can cast dramatic light on its surroundings, but it goes as quickly as it came, leaving the world it lit up unchanged.
Cummings’ display was long, dazzling and relentless, but the core message blazed out in its fiery letters seemed simple enough. Britain’s government in general is “terrifyingly sh*t”. Under this administration and Boris Johnson, we were and are “absolutely f*cked”. (The first two descriptions are interchangeable.) And that Matt Hancock is a “serial liar”, so repeatedly breaching the Ministerial Code.
We don’t believe for a moment that life is that simple: if it were, the UK would have no vaccine deployment success to weigh against the hospital discharge failure. But let’s try a thought experiment, and assume for a while that Cummings was right. What follows?
If British government really is “terrifingly sh*t”, transforming it into gold, or at a bare minimum making it serviceable, is a long-term project, involving a Parliament that works better, a reformed civil service, more local control, stronger civic institutions, a better media, a skills culture change – and perhaps new political parties entirely.
What might just make it a medium-term enterprise would be a first-rate government. But if Cummings is right, we don’t have one – and are “absolutely f*cked” under this administration. Moreover, Johnson has a majority of 80 and the odds of Conservative MPs getting rid of him before the next election, while never negligible, are long. However much Cummings might wish Rishi Sunak was Prime Minister instead.
Cummings testimony told us nothing of significance about the Prime Minister that we didn’t know before. Which leaves us with Hancock.
On the one hand, Johnson evidently confronted his Health Secretary about care homes deaths last year; on the other, it’s hard to see why anyone in government, including Cummings himself, could have believed that capacity existed to test all those returned from hospitals for Covid right from the start. So why would Hancock have given any? If he had, why believe him?
Cummings told the Select Committee hearing that “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes”. Do his own words point to the explanation? Did Hancock mean that people would be tested when the capacity was available later, rather than then when it wasn’t? That’s surely the most natural explanation.
At any rate, this is where Parliament and the Commons come in – though less on the floor of the chamber itself than in the committee rooms of Portcullis House.
Hancock’s Commons statement the day after Cummings’ testimony was a reminder that the chamber rarely proves fatal for Ministers’ careers. That’s because it is essentially a theatre, not a courtroom (as Keir Starmer is finding out). Questioners tend to grandstand. So do Ministers at bay. Their party’s backbenchers roar them on, regardless of the merits of the case – and, sometimes, of those of the Minister.
Such posturing is scarcely unknown in Select Committees, but the joint chairmanship of the one that will question the Health Secretary sharply reduces the likelihood in this case.
For neither Greg Clark, the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, nor Jeremy Hunt, the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, are (or were ever) likely to follow in the flamboyant footsteps of, say, Keith Vaz’s chairmanship of Home Affairs.
These two experienced Parliamentarians, ex-Cabinet members both, brought restraint and incision to Cummings’ questioning. Their joint committee’s Covid inquiry overlaps with the official one: both will seek “lessons learned”.
But the first has a head start on the second (since the official inquiry has not yet been established, let alone sat). And it explicity covers “the impact on the social care sector”.
Maybe Cummings is right, and MPs can do little in the short term to cure our entire system of being “terrifyingly sh*t”. But if he’s wrong, they have a chance to make a start, by taking a synoptic view of Covid’s handling, learning lessons and recommending changes.
And again, perhaps we’re all “absolutely f*cked”. But if not, the Government will act on the advice that’s given, and we at least stand a chance of being in a better place when the next unexpected event happens.
Either way, Parliament, in the form of Hunt and Clark’s committee, is set to play a decisive role in determining Hancock’s future and, by extension, that of the Government.
His coming evidence and Cummings’ this week are part of the story of the revival of Select Committees, which is getting Parliament out and about ahead of the inquiry.
As things stand, the Cummings firework that flares and splutters the most are his claims about the Health Secretary – which have also dragged Mark Sedwill, the former Cabinet Secretary, into the fray. Unless rebutted, these will burn his house down.
Neither Clark, sacked by Johnson, nor Hunt, defeated by Johnson, will want to open themselves up to accusations that they are seeking to settle old inter-Tory scores.
But sources on the committee tell ConHome that, since Cummings has made claims about Hancock during their proceedings, the committee will feel obliged to try to get to the bottom of them.
When asked if the committee had a right to see minutes, documents and recordings that might prove the allegations one way or the other, we were told that this is “a constitutional grey area”. (Cummings has said that he will hand over material in his possession.)
So while the committee has no mandate to directly pursue the Health Secretary over whether he was or wasn’t in breach of the Ministerial code, it nonetheless has one to seek “lessons learned”. If that raises the question of what he did and didn’t pledge, then so be it.