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Tue 22 June 2021

The Prime Minister’s former chief aide helped to create the system that he now rightly denounces, says Sam Bright

Dominic Cummings hates the system. That much has been clear for years. He doesn’t care about making friends and he doesn’t care about breaking things. When Iain Duncan Smith was leader of the Conservative Party and Cummings was an up-and-coming advisor, he said that the Tory chief, his former boss, was “incompetent” and that he would be a “worse Prime Minister than Tony Blair”.

Today, he has taken a sledgehammer to the system. 

In his hearing in front of MPs, that has lasted for much of the day, the Prime Minister’s former chief aide depicted a horrifying account of incompetence, confusion and inertia during the Coronavirus pandemic, presided over by those in power. “I also failed,” he admitted.

The litany of accusations made by Cummings is too long to catalogue here, but it can be summarised as such: until 14/15 March last year, the Government pursued a ‘herd immunity’ strategy whereby the disease would be encouraged to circulate among the general population – until it was realised that such a policy would effectively cause the NHS to shut down under immense pressure.

The Government then switched approach, but didn’t have any lockdown plans in place and so had to cobble together a policy in the space of a few days. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has repeatedly lied during the crisis, Cummings claims, notably promising that hospital patients returned to care homes would be tested for COVID-19 before they were released – something that didn’t happen in the early stages of the crisis.

Cummings, in typical fashion, blames Whitehall bureaucracy and institutional negligence for what he calls a “system failure” in how the Government dealt with the pandemic. These problems weren’t reserved for February and March, either. Leaned on by the right-wing press, Boris Johnson strongly opposed a second lockdown in the autumn of 2020, Cummings says – which led to a spike in the disease in the winter months. He says that, in retrospect, he should have resigned at that time. 

The former Downing Street kingpin also holds no sentimentality for the established lobby system of journalism in this country. In a long series of tweets posted over the past few days, Cummings has taken several swipes at the media, saying that “many journalists want you to believe nonsense” and that most political journalists fundamentally “believe in the system”. Hence, he says, they were unwilling to call out the Government’s fatal negligence over herd immunity – which Byline Times focused on from the outset. 

These comments are in many ways unsurprising – even if the details are deeply shocking. Cummings, an avid Brexit campaigner, bases his opposition to the EU on an antipathy towards a distant bureaucracy in Brussels; towards the system.

But herein contains the contradiction of Cummings. In trying to deconstruct the world and reform it in a more “logical” (a word he used repeatedly at today’s hearing) order, Cummings fails to appreciate context.

In the case of the Coronavirus, he is wholly right to lampoon the Government for its mistakes over herd immunity. If the system wasn’t working, it should have been quickly and fundamentally reformed.

But, his war against Brussels wasn’t a dance against death. Indeed, breaking the system has released more turmoil and carnage than was created by the very thing that he hated. Cummings did not appreciate, for example, that “taking back control” from the continent would simply place more power in the hands of a similarly incompetent Westminster establishment – led by Boris Johnson, a man he effectively says is not qualified to run the country. 

In discussing the Coronavirus pandemic, Cummings says that his ideal scenario would have been to appoint a scientific expert as essentially a dictator – who would have been bestowed with king-like powers and told to “push the boundaries of legality”.

Cummings is not a diplomat. He believes in implementing his vision of the country almost entirely regardless of the collateral damage. During the pandemic, this may have been justified in order to prevent the mass death that herd immunity promised. 

In the case of Brexit, however, the Vote Leave campaign pushed the boundaries of legality – but for what? The process of pushing through this policy, designed to curtail the powers of Brussels bureaucrats, ended up unleashing a wave of misinformation, xenophobia and neo-authoritarianism on the country that surely far outweighs the theoretical benefits of less red tape. 

What’s more, Cummings fails to recognise that he in large part created the system that incubated the Coronavirus calamity. He was the mastermind behind the success of Vote Leave – led by Boris Johnson – and the 2019 General Election campaign. Cummings used Johnson as the agent of his political fantasies. He cannot therefore shirk responsibility for what happened next. 

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