I have tended to avoid Dominic Cummings in my columns here. Mainly, because often the best way to deal with attention-seekers is to ignore them. Also, even at the subconscious level, perhaps I turn away from situations in which a right-hand man to a prime minister is getting too much media coverage for his own good. I will leave you to your own analysis of that one.
At the time of his famous Barnard Castle road trip, I very much didn’t ignore him. Indeed, I urged the public to write to their MP, collated the replies, and wrote tens of thousands of words on their responses in a series of blogs almost as long as the ones in which Cummings poses as a super-forecaster, helped by post facto updating of an old one to make it look like he had seen the pandemic coming.
I was angry because what he did seemed so clearly a sacking offence and it offended not just my sense of justice, but my respect for the office of the prime minister, that he survived (for now).
My anger, however, was more aimed at Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and their desperation to keep on board someone who was clearly doing the government, and, more importantly, trust in public messaging about Covid, so much damage. Till then, I didn’t fully buy into the idea that Cummings was running Johnson. But the clearer it became that there was no limit to the desperation to keep him, the more I realised that Cummings is indeed the governing mind of the Johnson government, with Gove in tow.
It is hardly an original point to suggest that this somewhat undermines the claim that the Brexit campaign he strategised was about elected British politicians in the British parliament taking back control from the unelected European Commission ‘bureaucrats’.
But it also suggests to me the UK media, which certainly treated me with greater levels of scrutiny than they did most of the Blair cabinet, need to do the same with Cummings. Given he gets more coverage than most of them already, you might think they already do so. But there is a difference between coverage and scrutiny. In truth, they continue to give him a very easy ride.
There remain unanswered questions from the road trip. There have also been reports of Covid contracts signed with associates of Cummings and Gove, without the work going out for tender – allegations which, if anything close to them had happened under Labour, would likely have led the news for weeks.
Also, the fresh lines Cummings whispers or, now he is so grand, has whispered on his behalf, to his favoured political journalists, are peddled and prattled over with scant regard for the fact that so many previous whispers have proven to be false, inconsistent, or not delivered upon.
Now, to a piece of Cummings’ attention-seeking from last week, for which you may occasionally wish to look at the photo.
First of all, let me tell you a little about the geography of Number 10. There is the main entrance, perhaps the most famous political door on the planet. We all know that one. But there are several other ways in.
There is a side door in the L-shaped road down the steps towards the back of the Foreign Office. These are the steps Cummings made sure to be seen racing down when he ran along Downing Street after getting the news his wife had Covid, before heading back to Number 10 in breach of self-isolation rules, to risk infecting all he met, up to and possibly including Johnson, before later heading north in breach of plenty more lockdown rules.
There is an entrance off the Horse Guards Parade which can take you to that side door without entering the L-shaped road at the point that can be seen by journalists hanging round in Downing Street.
There are several ways of getting in through the buildings at the lower end of the street, and of course there is 70, Whitehall, the entrance to the Cabinet Office, where Cummings now bases himself in his Nasa-style control centre, tracking data in real time on the amazingly brilliant job the government is doing in its handling of Covid.
Oh, and if you really, really don’t want anyone to see you anywhere near an entrance, there is an underground passage that stretches all the way to the Ministry of Defence across Whitehall.
My point is, when there are media are in the street, the better known faces in Number 10 tend only to use that front door if they want to be seen doing so. If you don’t want to be seen, you don’t need to be.
So let’s take a look at the picture, and try to analyse why he wanted to be seen. Perhaps the taxpayer-funded nightly focus groups have been saying bad things about what it says about Johnson that he allows Cummings to turn up for work looking like a posh vagrant, every fray in the jeans, every shirt hanging out of them, every beanie hat or body warmer a studied two fingers at norms associated with the highest office in the land.
So perhaps Cummings wanted it known that he had finally decided to grow up a little, smarten up a little, and wear a suit. But the cuffs, Dom, the cuffs. Can’t you get a shirt that fits you? Ah, but think about it… it is the oversized, overhanging left cuff that leads the photographer to the point… the point that this is a picture worth taking… the point of the walk up the street. Look at the cuff, and you see, he is carrying a document…
Unless you are a complete idiot, which whatever his many faults he is not, or unless you don’t care about security breaches, which would be another sacking offence in a serious government, you just do not walk around with documents capable of being photographed. So 1, he wanted to be seen, and 2, he wanted the document to be seen. He does, note, have a bag, into which any and all papers could have been put.
He clearly wanted the world to know that he was carrying a letter written to the man in charge of Ronald Reagan’s defence review in 1986 by one of the leading figures of the US missile and space programmes, in which he complained about the “blizzard of legislation” around defence procurement and accused the system of “inhibiting technological innovation”.
The message Cummings was trying to send with his latest photo-stunt attention seeking? “I’m bored with Brexit, I’m bored with Covid, space is where I am now. I am Britain’s answer to Elon Musk.” I can’t help thinking, given by his own admission he is not exactly motivated by public service, that if he really was Elon Musk, he would be, er Elon Musk.
Meanwhile, as part of my own attempt to get my head out of Britain, even while my body has to stay here as we limp thanks to government incompetence into a second lockdown that isn’t called a lockdown, I have a long, hot bath and listen to a week’s worth of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung podcasts, hoping to get my spirits restored by listening to serious people talking about serious things.
There were a couple about the dispute over Donald Trump’s attempt to rush through a replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, one on Fridays for Future, and a couple on Covid, including one about the pandemic was doing to our mental health.
There was a fascinating interview with a man named Klaus Lieb, a psychiatrist who runs Europe’s only Resilience Research Centre, at Mainz University, and then the chair of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Public Health Ansgar Gerhardus. They were discussing not just personal resilience, but community and societal resilience, insisting that unless public figures showed “exemplary behaviour” in obeying rules, the rules would break down the longer restrictions went on. The interviewer had in mind an incident involving someone at Bayern Munich. But Gerardus said something far worse had happened abroad. “There was an adviser who works for Boris Johnson, who broke the government’s own rules” he said, “and it led to an enormous breakdown of trust.”
As Cummings struts around with his space plans, back on Planet Earth, he is utterly defined by Barnard Castle, viewed less as an Elon Musk, than a Walter Mitty, licensed to do as he pleases by a posh David Brent, and he will continue to drain credibility and authority from the government every time he hoves into public view. I think he would be wise to use those other doors. I’ve got a map if he needs it.