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The Saturday View - Dominating The Message; Inside Cummings’ Plan To Reshape His Pandemic Narrative

9 min read

It was reported last year that Dominic Cummings has a penchant for exiting meetings by pulling the pin out of an imaginary grenade and throwing it over his shoulder, prompting much merriment online.

Fast forward to this month, and the question for many Westminster watchers is exactly how many explosive claims he has left to sling at his enemies ahead of next week's select committee appearance.

In April, Cummings responded to claims that he had been leaking stories about Number 10 with a short Friday afternoon blog that contained so many political bombshells it dominated the news agenda for a week.

A few days ago, he published an epic 28-tweet thread apparently exposing failings in the government’s pandemic response.

Some have predicted  Cummings’ recent and brutal public spat with his former boss is a precursor for what is to come. But friends and those who have worked with him suggest it will be himself and his role in the pandemic response that he will focus on, rather than extracting revenge on Boris Johnson.

To understand why, one needs to see how much of a role narratives have played in Cummings’ career; that he has spent his time, much of it successfully, creating and shaping the stylised versions of the truth on which he runs his campaigns.

He has also found himself on the wrong end of the story, to his mind anyway - painted in the media as a Rasputin-esque caricature, the “career psychopath” determined to be at odds with everyone.

Those close to him say it’s not an accurate portrayal of who he really is, and that “there are some things where he feels that he has been very badly misreported.”

I don't actually doubt that he was more or less on the right side of this, but he will have edited that to make it even more dramatically, so that he was on the right side of everything.

He now gets a chance to put his side of the story across, and to craft his own narrative. One former colleague said: “I think he's probably looking forward to this quite a lot.

“I think he wants to set the record straight. I think he wants some vindication. He cares more about his reputation than he might let on.”

His evidence to the joint inquiry by the health and science committees is likely to focus on what happened right at the very start of the Coronavirus crisis, and the decision to first lock down.

“I think he wants to make it very plain that he was one of the loudest voices in favour”, an ally said. 

“The key question is will he bring the receipts?”

Even some of those who were closest to him in Number 10 don’t know exactly what he plans to say on Wednesday morning, but his post this week bragging about having “the only copy of a crucial historic document from COVID decision-making” suggests he has something planned.

Cummings is said to hate the idea he’s associated with what appear to have been tentative and then swiftly-abandoned plans to pursue herd immunity from Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic.

“That’s absolutely not the place where he was,” an ex-colleague said.

But that is the problem with narratives, when they take hold they are difficult to shake off.

“Narratives is one word, myths is another, and he’s very good at creating myths,” said another source who has worked with him. 

“But does he have the evidence to back it up, that’s I think the key question for this. If he doesn’t it will be a bit of a damp squib, and he’ll come out of it diminished.”

Last time out in front of MPs his description of the demands he made of Johnson to enter Number 10 caught the eye, but it was his comments about the Department for Health which really reverberated around Westminster afterwards.

That he would heap opprobrium on it - he called it a “smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE” - was perhaps budgeted in, but it was his suggestion he was part of a crack team who helped take responsibility for UK’s vaccine plan away from Matt Hancock that “rankled” those there at the time.

In Cummings’ telling, he, chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance, the then-Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and unnamed others said: “Obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the Prime Minister.”

Sources in DHSC say that doesn’t tally with their recollection of the early stages of the disease. A former adviser was more blunt: “That's just not true.”

Others say the push to create a separate taskforce came from multiple directions, including some in Number 10, and there was support for the work Cummings did.

“He was doing really good important stuff, he wasn’t engaging in work on the vaccine though,” one former official said.

Whatever the reality, he returned to the theme in his epic Twitter thread, composed as he waited to get his jab, explaining Vallance on the 24 March 2020 supported “taking vaccines out of DHSC”, saying if it hadn’t happened then it would have been done by “normal Whitehall process, probably normal result”, which is not meant as a compliment.

While the health secretary has tried not to rise to the provocation, allies of his say he is right to be annoyed: “If it was just wrong he’d be a bit understanding about it, but it rankles when it's coming from someone who had nothing to do with it in the first place, was actively briefing against you for being so engaged in the vaccine side of things, and who's now trying to take complete credit.”

There is also incredulity at the way the PM’s ex-aide has pushed the narrative that he was the person in charge of mass testing, insiders claiming he briefed against Hancock for trying to set extremely ambitious targets for testing in the early stages of the pandemic, and “distracting” Johnson with them.

But it comes as no surprise to Sam Freedman, who was a policy adviser in the Department for Education when Cummings was there as Michael Gove’s spad.

“He is good at creating narratives, but he has this ability to mentally kind of recreate the past so that everything he said was correct and everything everyone else said was wrong,” he told PoliticsHome.

“I don't actually doubt that he was more or less on the right side of this, but he will have edited that to make it even more dramatically, so that he was on the right side of everything.”

The other hobby horse Cummings has returned to again and again in recent weeks is transparency, tweeting this week: "One of the most fundamental and unarguable lessons of February and March [2020] is that secrecy contributed greatly to the catastrophe. 

“Openness to scrutiny would have exposed government errors weeks earlier than happened.”

That was met with more than a few raised eyebrows, with many in Westminster saying they are unable to remember a tremendous commitment to transparency when Cummings was in Number 10, and noting, for example, battles over the Freedom of Information Act when he was at the DfE. 

“I would say that is total fucking bollocks,” one former colleague hits back. “No, he wasn’t a ‘big’ fan of transparency, he was a huge fan of transparency.

“This is what the lobby gets wrong, in the face of fierce opposition from anti-transparency forces, in the civil service particularly, Dom championed transparency. 

“So people are saying he wasn't a fan of transparency are just so wrong. He actually genuinely believes it."

For example SAGE minutes used to only be published after the crisis for which the committee had been convened was completely over.

At the start of the pandemic there was still that level of secrecy, but by the end of May 2020 the government had agreed to start posting documents about its working online.

Cummings wants it to be known he was instrumental in that, tweeting: “Vallance and I supported opening up SAGE much earlier than it happened. I argued before the first lockdown to open up the CODE of SPI-M models for scrutiny.”

He added that the government should go further than just publishing minutes, saying they do not “convey true situation, discussion, atmosphere, effects”.

An ally adds: “He genuinely believes that transparency, total transparency, is important. Not on fucking stupid stuff like emails or gossipy WhatsApp messages, but on really important stuff.”

But post-Barnard Castle and other stories about his own conduct, along with his blog knifing the PM over the Number 11 flat redecoration last month, he has as one Tory MP described it - a “credibility deficit”.

“I think the really interesting thing about Dom is how someone can be so acute in their analysis of problems, hyperbolic maybe, but pretty accurate in his analysis of why things have gone wrong and how things could be made better, and yet, so unable to practice any of those things himself,” Freedman says.

“The stuff he was tweeting this week and I suspect he'll say next week about transparency is completely right, we would have dealt with the pandemic much better if there was far greater transparency. 

“But he's obviously done his best to avoid transparency at every stage during his career. So how do you reconcile those two?”

He adds: “He very correctly talks about the importance of looking at all the evidence and not bringing ideological priors into decision-making, people like Philip Tetlock and the book he keeps talking about - The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef - are all about keeping a completely open mind and constantly critiquing your own priors and so on. 

“And yet this is someone whose ideological crusade to get out of the EU dominated 20 years of his life.”

But a former colleague dismisses this argument, saying: “He genuinely believes in transparency and ‘lessons learned’ in a way that most British institutions don’t. 

“And if he wants a legacy, greater transparency, on data, on information, on scientific debate, will be it.”

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