Nothing about Cummings’ six hour diatribe last week seemed surprising. Many already sensed that the recent ‘goings on’ in Westminster in the name of ‘governance’ had levels of transparency, co-ordination and commitment to public welfare that would make Yes Minister and Faulty Towers look like modern, socially committed, streamlined organisations.
Cummings’ depressing descriptions of good ideas being ignored, of dinosaur slowness in communicating vital messages, and of a government “entirely without plans” on crucial issues simply put flesh on the bones of horrors we had already deduced – working backwards, the UK pandemic response, aside from the vaccine programme, could only have emanated from a system largely in chaos and run by a chaotic PM.
But, the sceptic argues, can we trust Cummings? Doesn’t his tarnished reputation undermine the special weight his assertions would otherwise carry as an insider? To consider this question I will put aside Cummings’ Durham trip, alongside the Covid misdemeanours of various other ministers from both sides, simply as a “very stupid mistake“. The stronger case for scepticism is that Cummings wilfully manoeuvred Johnson into power in the first place and, as the brains behind various false claims about Brexit, lied during the campaign.
I want to suggest that Cummings’ claims are valid not only because they echo the government’s disastrous pandemic management but because his motives for speaking out are sincere.
Firstly, although Cummings’ previously warned about potential future pandemics, when he bootstrapped Johnson into power in order to deliver Brexit, he had no idea that a major pandemic was imminent. So, he can’t be charged with knowingly promoting Johnson as a pandemic manager. Johnson was deemed the man to ‘get Brexit done’. But we don’t know what might have happened had the December 2019 election been deferred to 2020. Cummings may then have decided that Johnson was most definitely not the man to get a pandemic done. And he’d have been absolutely right, of course. But that’s not how history went.
Secondly, whatever our misgivings about Brexit, we cannot simply use someone’s adherence to Brexit to condemn their response to something entirely unconnected, such as a pandemic. See, for example, Cummings is our Machiavelli, also Byline Times. Also I suspect that he now regrets his ‘Evil Genius’ role in the devilish game of Brexit, a regret only deepened by the pandemic.
Outrage and remorse?
So what were Cummings’ motives for wanting to ‘tell all’? Perhaps, as some commentators claim, he is vengeful and so wanted to punish Johnson and others, notably Carrie Symonds, for his mistreatment. Perhaps he wanted to manoeuvre better candidates such as Sunak into Johnson’s place. Or perhaps he wanted to exonerate himself prior to the inquiry. Motives are often complex so it’s likely they all influenced Cummings. They certainly work together. For example, his attacks on Hancock and Johnson, though punitive, were also fuelled by genuine outrage at their dishonesty and incompetence. Here vengeance couples neatly with a sense of ‘duty’ where it would be both gratifying and socially responsible to make a bid for a better leader by undermining the two people primarily responsible for causing so much chaos and death.
However, watching the sessions, my overriding sense was that Cummings’ key motive was remorse. Throughout, he made strenuous efforts to present himself as a ‘decent person’ with a moral compass. The ‘conspiracy’ minded will dismiss this as simply a calculated ruse by ‘the Evil Genius’ to dupe his audience. But it can equally be seen as Cummings’ bid to extract himself from a caricature that he feels no longer represents him. Whatever the deceits of the past, Cummings is now a parent of a young child, he caught Covid himself badly, he lost a family member to Covid (his uncle, Sir John Laws) and he was an inside observer of fatal Covid mismanagement throughout 2020.
Furthermore, whatever his failings, to his credit, Cummings is not a Tory sycophant but a maverick who had the freedom eventually to whistle blow. Also, Cummings could have spent the sessions just describing mismanagement by others, but he also focussed on his own failings. Moreover, Cummings is actually the only one in government to date who has fulsomely apologised for his failings. Hancock, Johnson and the rest, have never, at any point, admitted fault, preferring instead to gaslight, lie and prevaricate their way around the ‘piling bodies’.
Given these observations, it is reasonable to suggest that Cummings’ own maturation has been fast tracked by the horrors of 2020-21 – that the UKs enormous death toll triggered an epiphany which drove him to atone by telling the truth and apologising for his part in it.
“If only I’d acted otherwise“
In the sessions, Cummings outlines two critical points where he now feels remorse because he failed to avert terrible outcomes. The first was at the start of the pandemic where he admitted he was afraid to go against the official view, held up to 16 March, that lockdowns should be avoided. If he had been alone in arguing for a lockdown and then been proved wrong, the responsibility, he claimed, would have been too much to bear.
“I was incredibly frightened about the consequences of pulling a massive emergency string and saying the official plan is wrong and it’s going to kill everyone. What if I’m wrong? What if I persuade [Johnson] to change tack and then that’s a disaster … I’m terribly, deeply sorry that I didn’t do it earlier but it just seemed like such a massive thing” (session 1)
We could call this cowardice. But as Cummings noted, information then was inadequate and conflicting. The WHO was still advising against travel bans at the end of Feb 2020 WHO recommendations. Sage argued that a lockdown would simply delay the surge and behavioural scientists claimed that the UK public would not co-operate anyway. Ok, they were all wrong. But with so many lives at stake it is understandable that Cummings was reluctant to make a fatal error in going against plan A. I wish he had, but I can understand why he didn’t.
Cummings’ second critical point for remorse was in September 2020. He admitted that at this point he should have quit his job as advisor and used this freedom to go public on the urgent need for another lockdown. He was then in a much stronger position because he had both the data and the agreement of Sage and most of the cabinet, even Hancock, that not locking down would result in many more Covid deaths than in the first wave. However, Johnson single-handedly, that is, without even a cabinet debate, refused. Cummings then had to choose between staying or leaving and blowing the whistle. He chose to stay.
“The thing I regret terribly now” – [I should have said to Johnson] “if you don’t lockdown now I will call a press conference and … blow this thing sky high … I will say the PM is making a terrible decision that is going to kill thousands of people”. “I should have gambled on holding a gun to his head essentially” … “If I’d done it tens of thousands of people would still be alive and we could have avoided the whole … nightmare that the country has gone through”. “You stay because you think maybe you can change things … control the shopping trolley”. “There’s no doubt in my mind now that I made a mistake” (final session).
Cummings clearly sees his decision to stay in September and keep quiet about the government’s mismanagement of Covid as potentially linked to the deaths of “tens of thousands of people”. This is a huge burden to carry and more than adequately explains his felt need to take part in the marathon ‘honesty’ session last week.
There is perhaps also a third background to Cummings’ remorse which couldn’t feature in the sessions because it is too large to voice. Although he can’t be blamed for Johnson’s unsuitability as a pandemic PM, he was the principal architect behind Johnson’s becoming leader in 2019. Cummings regards the Covid death toll as a consequence of disastrously poor leadership. So I suspect he may now deeply regret his ‘inadvertent’ establishment of a leader who, despite serving as a useful figurehead for Brexit, went on to become a walking tragedy for the UK.
Cummings has reason now to feel like the prison warden who unwittingly released a prisoner on the basis of his having “acceptable paperwork at the time” but who then went on to kill. Like the prison warden, Cummings released a devastatingly unsuitable leader onto the UK and must now live with this action weighing on his conscience. Cummings also has a ‘confessor’ streak. So, in time, this factor in his atonement might eventually be aired too.