Covid Inquiry: Cummings lets rip at ‘dumpster fire’ Cabinet Office

Former chief adviser bemoans “bloated” and “opaque” heart of government with “a lot of the wrong people in the wrong job”
Dominic Cummings gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry

By Jim Dunton

01 Nov 2023

Former No.10 chief adviser Dominic Cummings launched a blistering attack on Cabinet Office leadership and structures in his highly anticipated first evidence session with the Covid Inquiry, which also broached expletive-laden depictions of ministers in WhatsApps and other messages.

Cummings, who was top aide to Boris Johnson from July 2019 to November 2020, said longstanding organisational problems at the heart of government had been an obstacle to effective action in the early months of the pandemic.

He also suggested that many senior people in the Cabinet Office were in the wrong jobs – including then-cabinet secretary Mark, now Lord, Sedwill, and the principal private secretary to the prime minister, Martin Reynolds. He described the situation as a “dumpster fire”.

“The Cabinet Office over a long period of time has accumulated more and more power – formal and informal; it’s become incredibly bloated; it’s acquired huge numbers of people, huge numbers of teams, particularly on the whole deep state/national-security side, [and] crisis management,” Cummings said.

“It has become in all sorts of ways increasingly opaque and effectively invisible to any political figure – including the prime minister. So it was extremely difficult to know in No.10 who exactly in the Cabinet Office was doing what. Whose responsibility it was, who were we supposed to be talking to to get action. And that was critical, particularly in the first couple of months.”

He said many “senior people” did not know who was in charge of what.

Cummings told the inquiry yesterday that he and Sedwill had “quite a few frank discussions” about some of the Cabinet Office’s problems before the onset of the pandemic. The former chief adviser said some officials he had expressed concerns about were “removed” at his request.

But he added: “Whitehall being Whitehall, they were often promoted rather than being actually moved.”

Asked for examples of who the “wrong people” in the Cabinet Office were, Cummings immediately made reference to Sedwill, who took on the role of cabinet secretary when predecessor Sir Jeremy Heywood was no longer able to continue in the role as he battled cancer. Sedwill maintained his role as national security adviser.

Cummings said Sedwill was “a very able diplomat” and had “enormous skills in all sorts of ways”. But he added that the then-cabinet secretary admitted never having sought the cab sec role and “had serious doubts” about combining it with the post of national security adviser.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC reminded Cummings that he had “denigrated and insulted” Sedwill in WhatsApps and other messages.

“It’s certainly the case that I came to the view that he did not have visibility of the fundamental disasters that were unfolding inside the Cabinet Office,” Cummings replied.

He added: “Part of what I was expressing to the prime minister was that other people in the Cabinet Office and officials in the prime minister’s office had said to me both ‘we fear that the Cabinet Office has gone dreadfully wrong’ and that Mark doesn’t understand just how badly wrong this has all gone.”

Cummings also said that he had tried to get Boris Johnson to remove Martin Reynolds from his role as PPS on two separate occasions, only to “lose the argument”.

Reynolds resigned from the role in early 2022 amid revelations about the Partygate scandal.

Cummings said: “I felt a crucial part of my job was to say to the PM and to other people if I thought that someone couldn’t do the job, and to make that clear, because a) that’s so fundamental to performance and b) the issue is so often buried in Whitehall.”

Counsel to the inquiry Keith asked Cummings whether there were any parts of the government machine that were fault-free.

Cummings praised British special forces, who he said were “exceptional”, and the general staff of the No.10 private office team – with the caveat that they were “swamped by the broader dysfunction of the Cabinet Office”.

He said that the picture was one of “widespread failure but pockets of excellent people and pockets of excellent teams doing excellent work within an overall dysfunctional system”.

'Appalling language'

Many of the private communications aired at the inquiry to date have used course language. Current chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean describing a fellow scientist as a “f*ckwit” is one of the more surprising recent examples.

However, Cummings’s WhatsApps and other messages typically have a high expletive count. One message read out yesterday during former No.10 communications director Lee Cain’s evidence session contained particularly harsh descriptions.

In it, Cummings referred to some cabinet ministers and officials as “useless f*ck pigs” and called Matt Hancock  a c*nt, saying he wanted Johnson to sack the then-health secretary – because the alternative was a “hideous prospect”.

In another message, he called for the removal of deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, writing: "I don't care how it is done but that woman must be out of our hair - we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c*nt."

Yesterday afternoon, Keith asked Cummings whether he believed his “revolting language” had contributed to a lack of effectiveness on the part of ministers and the cabinet.

“No, I think I was reflecting a widespread view among competent people at the centre of power at the time about the calibre of a lot of senior people who were dealing with this crisis extremely badly,” Cummings replied.

“My appalling language is obviously my own. But my judgement of a lot of senior people was widespread.”

He added that, if anything, his comments had “understated the position, as was shown in 2020”.

The inquiry continues.

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