Late-night battles, expletive-ridden rants, Jaws references and Spiderman memes – the dramatic details of Dominic Cummings’ seven-hour testimony captivated Westminster on Wednesday.
But strip away all the chaos and colour, and the bleak picture left behind was of a prime minister utterly unsuited to the historic and unprecedented task he was handed.
Of course, Cummings is a deeply unreliable witness: self-interested, embittered about his departure from Downing Street and inconsistent – to put it generously – about his lockdown-busting trip to Durham.
At times he appeared to be pursuing something close to a vendetta against the health secretary, Matt Hancock, whom he claimed to have repeatedly urged the prime minister to sack, and whom he accused of a litany of lies and other failures.
Yet the broad thrust of his attack on Boris Johnson had the ring of plausibility, mainly because it chimed so squarely with much of what was already publicly known, from the botched early response to the pandemic to Johnson’s refusal to order a September lockdown.
On Wednesday Cummings put that narrative on the record and brought it alive, with added layers of excruciating detail.
He described the prime minister’s dogged refusal to listen to scientific advice or learn the lessons of the March lockdown. He told of Johnson’s repeated references to “the mayor from Jaws” and his tendency to disappear off on holiday or become distracted at critical junctures.
The prime minister was “about a thousand times too obsessed with the media” and “changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day”, Cummings said.
Instead of a smooth-running machine, with the prime minister at the centre, Cummings claimed the cabinet was barely involved in key decisions, and went as far as saying that Johnson deliberately embraced political disorder.
Cummings said Johnson told him last summer, when the senior aide was threatening to resign, that “chaos isn’t that bad: it means people have to look to me to see who is in charge”.
Perhaps most damning, though, was Cummings’ account of the autumn, when many scientific experts were calling for a circuit-breaker to prevent the virus running out of control after schools reopened.
Unlike in March, when data was hard to come by and the pandemic was extremely novel, there was by now ample information as well as the hard-won experience gained from the spring lockdown.
Cummings claimed the prime minister continued to insist, in the face of all the evidence, not only that another lockdown was not necessary but that the first one had been the wrong move, which he was somehow gulled into.
“There’s this great misunderstanding people have that because it [Covid] nearly killed him, therefore he must have taken it seriously,” Cummings said in a reference to the prime minister’s brush with death in March 2020. “But in fact, after the first lockdown, he was cross with me and others with what he regarded as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was: ‘I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open.’”
Of course, Johnson did eventually order that second lockdown, at the end of October and several weeks later than advised. By this time, Cummings claimed, Johnson was so infuriated that he said he would rather see “bodies pile up” than implement a third lockdown – corroborating a report that the PM has denied.
And, Cummings argued, the bodies did pile up across a year of poor decision-making. The official UK Covid death toll now stands at more than 127,000.
Being prime minister doesn’t just mean the Downing Street address and the cheering crowds: it carries the responsibility of life-and-death choices freighted with historical significance. That’s the reason candidates for the job are often asked: “Would you press the nuclear button?”
Once they disappear inside the big black door of No 10, the nation has no choice but to rely on their judgment as they make those life-and-death decisions. On Wednesday it was hard to listen to the man Johnson chose as his closest adviser and conclude that he made them well.