Dave Penman: Dom should put up or shut up

The prime minister’s former top adviser fired broadsides across all of Whitehall in his evidence on the government’s coronavirus response. But we got more accusations than facts
Dominic Cummings Photo: Alamy

By Dave Penman

17 Jun 2021

It was a soul-baring, tell-all TV spectacular. Too long, but then they always are, and it really dragged in parts. In the end though, we came away with a better picture of the man himself. And of course, Keir Starmer’s Life Stories was OK as well.

Dominic Cummings, the artist formerly known as “career psychopath”, gave a marathon seven-hour evidence session to the combined health and science and technology select committees. Just like baking your first sourdough loaf in lockdown, you wonder whether all that effort was really worth the few bite-size pieces you come away with. Sure, they were tasty, but seven hours!

He started his evidence with a heartfelt apology. I don’t know whether the Hard Rain Man is really the communication and campaign genius some think he is, but the abject apology for whatever heinous crime you’re alleged to have committed is the go-to strategy. Get it out there straight away as well, then spend the next six hours and 58 minutes qualifying it by pointing the finger at everyone else, making clear your real crime was not doing more to stop them.

We also had the revelation that “Yes, I did talk to people unauthorised.” Really, Dom? You spoke to the press? Well tickle my toes and call me Charlie, who knew? I think the real surprise was that he had time to do anything else.

There were some moments of insight, but whilst the point of a select committee hearing is to get the facts, I never got the feeling that was Hard Rain Man’s agenda. 

I came away feeling that what I’d witnessed was not so much the rewriting of history, more a selection of the bits that suit his narrative. The people he’s decided are culpable – or that he’s just fallen out with – got it both barrels, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock in particular. There was little mention of Rishi Sunak or Michael Gove, who it would appear never put a foot wrong on Covid. We were treated to the usual sweeping criticisms of “the machine” that didn’t understand, wasn’t prepared, was structurally incapable – as he battled bravely, always driven by the science. Except, of course, when he found time to wage the culture war against the civil service, undermining it and its leadership and briefing the press on an almost daily basis.

He is apparently a fan of speaking truth unto power – coming as close to a compliment as you’ll get – when retelling the moment when apparently Helen McNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary burst into the room with an expletive-laced outburst that would have made Malcolm Tucker blush. 
What there wasn’t was a lot of evidence. I would say it’s time to put up or shut up but I fear he is incapable of the latter.

For me, the most telling moment was when he suggested he knew it was all going wrong when the prime minister didn’t do as he was told. I’m paraphrasing of course, but that was essentially his point and here lies the problem. Not so much that he thought he could tell the PM what to do, as that ship had sailed a long time ago. He had been allowed to operate like this with the PM’s authority. Every decision, every leaned-on official, every briefing to the press: all of it was done in the prime minister’s name. This of course suited the PM down to the ground, providing plausible deniability.

Cummings was, after all, only a special adviser, a temporary civil servant. We know how much the prime minister respects the ministerial code, and on this it is absolutely clear: “The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment. Individual ministers will be accountable to the prime minister, parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.”

Whatever Cummings ultimately is, hero or monster, he is a product of the power granted to him by the prime minister. 

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union


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