Decoding Dominic Cummings’ ‘bombshell’ Covid inquiry testimony

“We’re going to need to coarsen our language considerably”, stated Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the Covid inquiry, as he started his interrogation of Dominic Cummings, yesterday; it might quickly develop into clear why such a warning was mandatory — and the identical recommendation stands for this text.

“A bomb web site”, “ineffective”, “feral” “a dumpster fireplace”, “[a] horrific meltdown”, “terrifyingly s***”, “dysfunctional”, “ineffective f***pigs, morons and c***s”. That was how Cummings described the assorted arms of the state he interacted with in the course of the pandemic in non-public messages revealed yesterday. Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor denied his language contributed to any failings, however apologised for it regardless. Nonetheless, he insisted, his language mirrored “a widespread view amongst competent folks on the centre of energy on the time”.

Cue a string of articles outlining the “[insert number here] bombshell revelations” from the Cummings’ look earlier than the Covid inquiry. After all, there will be little doubt, Cummings‘ testimony yesterday was equal elements coruscating and charming — as he launched into stinging broadsides directed on the tradition of Whitehall governance in addition to a litany of previous foes.

And, as Boris Johnson’s de-facto chief of workers in the course of the pandemic years, we all know Cummings was closely concerned within the selections made at Downing Avenue throughout this era. His testimony confirmed as a lot; the truth is, commentators might need hitherto been understating his affect.


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One doc drawn upon by Keith and brandished earlier than Cummings was an e mail which appeared to point out Johnson’s former chief adviser making an attempt to manage correspondence heading to the prime minister on Covid. The newly-disclosed e mail, justified by Cummings’ suggestion that No 10 officers had been spending “an excessive amount of time in crap conferences”, learn: “Any Chair temporary on something associated to [Covid 19] together with [the Cabinet Office] and [Treasury] should be cleared by [Tom] Shinner or me — NOBODY ELSE.

“With out radical modifications additional disasters are assured”, Cummings’ e mail closed. 

Yesterday, Johnson’s former confidant-turned-nemesis additional justified this determination by describing the Cupboard Workplace as a “bomb web site” in the course of the pandemic. “This [was] inflicting chaos, there [had] to be some — a formalised system to truly grip this, as a result of the Cupboard Workplace was a dumpster fireplace, and Shinner was extraordinarily in a position”, he added. 

He additionally described the transfer as “one of many single, in all probability handful, of finest selections I made in the entire nightmare”.

Step again and, what the British public was made aware about yesterday, together with newly-disclosed damning WhatsApps and Cummings and co’s oral testimony, was undoubtedly gripping. However, after the Covid inquiry adjourned another yesterday afternoon, what had we actually learnt about Johnson’s mode of governance in No 10 — and the actual technique of Downing Avenue decision-making, maybe masked by Cummings expletive-laden WhatsApp musings?

One perception into Cummings’ personal method to authorities, which the ex-adviser was eager to emphasize early on in his testimony, was that he had advised Johnson that he ought to conduct a reshuffle to “shrink the scale of the cupboard again to the place it was 100 years in the past”. However Boris Johnson was not , and Cummings implied such a change would have streamlined decision-making in Whitehall. Keith shortly moved on.

The episode, for Cummings’ trigger, was a staging publish in a story he sought to assemble earlier than the inquiry — a slightly extra severe cleaning soap field than his Substack weblog — that he and some different enlightened people had been singularly chargeable for holding again a tide of Whitehall and ministerial incompetence, created by each agent and structural faults. 

Cummings painted an image of full chaos in No 10, as advisers, ministers and civil servants battled for the prime minister’s consideration with a sequence of novel techniques: there was, maybe firstly, what Cummings described because the “Pop-in”.

“Pop-ins”, Cummings defined, “are what folks within the non-public workplace referred to when the prime minister would decide about one thing, [and] some aspect of the system, typically within the Cupboard Workplace, wouldn’t like what had been agreed, and in the very best Sir Humphrey ‘Sure, Minister’-style, they’d anticipate me and different folks to not be across the prime minister and they’d pop in to see the prime minister and say, “Expensive prime minister, I believe that this determination actually wasn’t the very best concept, very courageous, prime minister, maybe it’s best to trolley on it”.

On this approach, on the coronary heart of presidency, Cummings and co had conjured their very own vernacular to make sense of Johnson’s obvious private failings. The verb “to trolley”, for example, was deployed to explain the PM’s tendency to profession and alter path when confronted with a specific dilemma. 

Later, Cummings was requested what, if something, labored nicely in the course of the pandemic, he responded, wryly: “Erm … nicely, in summer time 2020 I spent numerous time speaking to British Particular Forces and I discovered that they had been distinctive”. (The “Erm …” is how Cummings’ response is recorded within the official inquiry transcript). 

Pressed additional, Cummings defined: “I might say general widespread failure, however pockets
of fantastic folks and pockets of fantastic groups doing glorious work inside an general dysfunctional system”. 

The response sums up that if any future authorities is taken with studying tips on how to deal with a novel infectious illness, they’d in all probability be finest served trying someplace aside from Cummings’ inquiry testimony.

On Tuesday, in the long run — and despite the entire headlines — probably the most revealing change didn’t come throughout Cummings’ testimony, however within the proof offered by his cooler colleague, Lee Cain.

Cain, Johnson’s former communications chief, was requested a few part of his written assertion to the inquiry, wherein he described the central pressure in Whitehall between these advisers, officers and ministers who wished to take a cautious method to ending  Covid containment measures, and people who wished to unlock extra shortly.

Within the assertion, Cain outlined how unlocking shortly was the method favoured by the correct wing of the Conservative social gathering in addition to in some sections of the printed media; he named The Telegraph newspaper as a key driving drive. 

Requested whether or not such influences performed a job within the PM’s decision-making round September/October, when officers thought of whether or not or to not have a circuit break lockdown, Cain responded, merely: “Sure”.

He added: “I believe the prime minister was torn on this situation. If he would have been in his earlier function as a journalist, he would in all probability have been writing articles saying we should always open up the seashores and the way we should always  get forward with getting again. 

And I believe he felt torn the place the proof on one aspect and public opinion, and scientific proof was very a lot ‘Warning, sluggish, we’re nearly definitely going to need to do one other suppression measure’

However Cain disclosed how the “rump of the Tory social gathering was pushing him laborious within the different path”. He went on to criticise the “Eat Out to Assist Out” coverage, which now-PM Rishi Sunak patronised and championed. 

On this level, there was one other necessary revelation yesterday which confirmed how extra-Whitehall components had been influencing key selections. Throughout Cain’s testimony, an extract from former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries from December 2020 was quoted. It learn: “Chief whip says ‘I believe we should always let the previous folks get it and shield others’. PM says ‘loads of my backbenchers assume that and I have to say I agree with them!”.

Finally, these factors of proof present that the talk over Covid coverage was slightly broader than Cummings described in his testimony — along with his twin focuses on the PM’s failings and the Whitehall “system”. 

Past concocting headlines for parliament-deprived journalists, it’s the Covid inquiry’s job to unpick and historicise pandemic-era decision-making; and this can be a story finest advised, not solely by the prism of the actions of Dominic Cummings or Boris Johnson — or of squandered alternatives to see the cupboard shrunk — however by bearing in mind a myriad of things and influences, even these which originate far past Cummings’ much-loathed “system”. 

As Professor Tim Bale has noted, there could also be an inclination after the testimony yesterday to retreat right into a “nice man concept” view of Covid governance, the place Johnson’s personal failings are seen because the essential, even sole, determinant of pandemic coverage. 

However, because the Covid inquiry is piecing collectively, the reality is way messier. Any complete view of pandemic-era decision-making might want to embrace components far past Johnson’s private failings or the actual fact, as Cain described, {that a} novel coronavirus “was the unsuitable disaster for the prime minister’s ability set”. That, in spite of everything, was certainly information to no person. 

Josh Self is Editor of, comply with him on Twitter here. is the UK’s main digital-only political web site, offering complete protection of UK politics. Subscribe to our each day publication right here.