Not so much a parliamentary hearing, more an eight-hour Netflix miniseries. The one where a lone delusional narcissist drives into town to take revenge on a whole bunch of other delusional narcissists. With a bit of Independence Day and Spider-Man thrown in.
Dominic Cummings’ appearance before the joint science and technology and health select committee always promised to be good box office and it didn’t disappoint. By the end of the session the body count included Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, half the senior civil servants in Downing Street, Cobra, Carrie Symonds and Dilyn the dog. Not forgetting Cummings himself. It’s not in Dom’s makeup to resist a self-inflicted wound.
The proceedings kicked off with Cummings blindsiding everyone with an apology. One he was to repeat several times during the course of the day. Senior advisers, such as him, had failed disastrously and he wanted to say sorry for all his mistakes. He even sounded vaguely plausible.
His was a tale of hubris. The Dominic Cummings who was shocked to find there was a man called Dominic Cummings who had been the chief adviser to the prime minister. The man who could write endless 15,000-word esoteric blogs about why he was right about everything yet was unable to fulfil his basic job description. The chief adviser who was unable to advise. Whose position as the second most powerful figure in Downing Street was meaningless because his advice was consistently ignored.
Which isn’t to say the apologies weren’t self-serving. Cummings knows the rules of the game and if you want to go on the attack, then it’s first best to make sure you’ve covered your back. First in the crosshairs was the health secretary. Hancock was basically a serial liar who should have been fired back in April last year. Saying that patients would be tested before being released into care homes was only the greatest in an extensive catalogue of crimes, Cummings claimed. Dom – along with most of Downing Street – had begged the prime minister to sack him on a daily basis, only for Johnson to refuse, because he wanted to save him as a sacrificial lamb for the inevitable public inquiry.
Accusing a minister of lying was a serious matter, said the joint committee chair, Greg Clark, right at the end. Was there any chance Cummings could provide some documentary evidence? Dom mulled this over, before saying he would see what he could drag up. Though he wasn’t sure it would be ethical to hand over all his private WhatsApp messages with the cabinet secretary. Thereby disclosing at least one of his sources. Mark Sedwill’s heart must have sunk when he heard this. The grenade-tossing tosser had just tossed his last imaginary grenade.
But it was the revelations about Boris that were the most startling. Not so much the stuff about herd immunity, the mayor of Jaws, “kung flu”, wanting to be injected with coronavirus live on TV by Chris Whitty, rejecting a September circuit breaker or letting the bodies pile high rather than have a third lockdown: all these had been heavily trailed. It was the levels of sheer incompetence that were gobsmacking. The deputy cabinet secretary who had barged in to conclude: “We’re absolutely fucked”; a cabinet that had ceased to function and a leader unfit for office whose actions had cost the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Boris was basically an out-of-control shopping trolley careening from side to side down the aisles. A man who woke up without a plan and just reacted to whatever he had read in the papers. “The country deserved better than a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn at the last election,” said Cummings, apparently having forgotten that he had done more than almost anyone to get Boris into No 10. There again, he also said it was crackers someone like him should have got into such a powerful position in government and that thousands of people could have done the job better than him.
Like most things with Dom, though, this needed to be treated with some caution. His insistence that he had been powerless was delivered with the swagger of someone who had once believed himself almost omnipotent. And his refusal to utter a word of criticism about Rishi Sunak was just baffling. To Rishi as much as anyone else. Right now, the chancellor could probably do without Dom’s endorsement.
Even his trip to Durham had been misunderstood, he claimed. It hadn’t been anything to do with him having coronavirus, it had been because of death threats he had received. Which made you wonder why he hadn’t just told the truth during his Rose Garden press conference. It would have at least been more credible than the story he made up. There again, he also stuck to his story that the drive to Barnard Castle with his family had been an eyesight test. But that’s the way Dom rolls. His can be a highly subjective truth.
So why hadn’t the man who fantasised about having everyone exactly where he wanted them resigned sooner if he was so disillusioned with the government’s handling of the pandemic? He nearly went in March, he said. And he should have gone in September. But something had held him back. Not the belief that Boris would change – he’d surely seen enough of him to know better than that – but the intoxication of feeling important.
Time and again, Cummings said he wanted to disappear from public life. Yet he gave the impression of someone who was loving being back in the limelight and was desperate for the session not to end. As if he only knew he was alive by the attention he received. Even if most of it was negative.
It had been by turns both jaw-dropping and grubby viewing. On balance, it felt as if some light had crept through the cracks. The families of the bereaved deserved better than truths carved out of a desire to settle some personal scores. But for now they would have to settle for what they could get.