Boris Johnson will struggle to escape Dominic Cummings’s long shadow

Dominic Cummings was Boris Johnson's most senior adviser but the relationship has reportedly turned sour since the former aide dramatically left Downing Street last year.

Dominic Cummings is a complex phenomenon. 

Inevitably, therefore, his seven-hour testimony to MPs was less a rock dropped in the middle of a pond, that will cause more or less predictable ripples, and more a mined landscape, in which the mines are constantly on the move.

Which is partly why, I assume, the government is not challenging in any kind of detailed way his many highly damaging charges, against the prime minister, the health secretary and the entire Whitehall system.

On my show last night, the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick repudiated nothing of substance that Cummings had alleged, including the most damaging assertion of all, that the PM’s refusal to lock down in September had led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

The calculation appears to be that by the time Johnson’s public enquiry into his own stewardship of the crisis starts next spring, we’ll have moved on, and in our gratitude for the vaccines, we’ll have forgotten and forgiven.

It is classic Johnson Micawberism.

But the charge, that the PM made a very costly mistake in not pre-emptively restricting our liberties last autumn, won’t go away – because Cummings is supported by scientists who could never be painted as his friends and allies, such as John Edmunds, the distinguished epidemiologist who underwrote this part of his testimony on Peston last night.

And equally there will be no let up in pressure from bereaved families and those suffering debilitating long Covid consequences for a forensic investigation of whether they could have been better protected.

Cummings will cast a long shadow over the Johnson administration for years – not least because Johnson won’t ever be able to deny that Cummings played a central role, perhaps the most important role, in delivering his precious Brexit and the constitutional chaos that precipitated his landslide election victory. 

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He will find it hard to dismiss as a lightweight fantasist someone without whom he might not today be living in the flat above the Downing Street shop burnished with gold wallpaper.

Which is not to say that everything that emerges from the windmills of Cummings’s mind is motivated by the public’s welfare rather than score settling. And he is acutely conscious that his reputation today, and his case against the PM, would be significantly stronger if he’d resigned in September when the PM refused the lock down, rather than departing in the mayhem of a power struggle with the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds in November.

But he is the aide who, for a while, had unprecedented power in modern politics as an unelected official and knew everything that was happening inside government.

So the most anxious person in the cabinet today is probably Matt Hancock, accused by Cummings of serial deceit and incompetence. It is a stain that Hancock will only be able to wash clean if the former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, who Cummings cites as a witness, is prepared to call Cummings a liar. Sedwill, who is no friend of Cummings, knows that his silence does not make him neutral. 

Paradoxically the second most anxious member of the cabinet is probably the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak – who had the rare distinction in the government of being praised by Cummings.

In 10 Downing Street, where all prime ministers throughout history have lived in paranoia of possible coups from colleagues on their own benches, and especially from those who live next door at Number 11, it might well have been better for Sunak’s immediate prospects if Cummings dumped on him, too.