Remember how Dominic Cummings played a blinder over Brexit, spinning a web of deceptions, funnelled through politicians and the media, to persuade the public that Britain needed to quit the European Union so urgently it should do so on any terms, even ones that would sabotage the country’s interests. Well, he just did a Brexit on Boris Johnson, though this time he didn’t need to use lies. The facts were quite enough.
It would be foolish, however to imagine that in appearing before a House of Commons select committee yesterday Cummings, Johnson’s disgruntled former chief adviser, was serving simply as a conduit for the truth about Johnson’s catastrophically inept government – a kind of inversion of the role the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has played serving as a conduit for Cummings and Johnson’s misinformation.
Cummings was once again proving he is the master of cynical power politics. He is the Machiavelli of our times. His self-serving honesty and self-criticism were perfectly calibrated to rehabilitate his image, win over doubters and stick the knife more deeply into Johnson.
Utterly shocking pic.twitter.com/yc0x6gIsk1
— Peter Stefanovic (@PeterStefanovi2) May 26, 2021
It may be too uncharitable to exclude the possibility that Cummings is offering his revelations, in part, to benefit the British public. But his larger purpose is clear. He is doing his best to damage and destroy those who are incompetently corrupt, like Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, so that they can be replaced by the more competently corrupt, like Michael Gove and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Cummings is a brigade commander on the frontlines of a war within the establishment class. He wants a better frontman for his brand of US-inspired, super-predatory capitalism. And for that reason alone, the left should avoid getting so deeply immersed in these intrigues that we start cheerleading one side over the other.
Yes, Johnson made disastrous decisions over Covid that killed many thousands unnecessarily: the “herd immunity” plan, the abandonment of care homes, the delays in procuring PPE, the lax border policy, the extravagant contracts for cronies, and much more. We didn’t need Cummings to tell us that, though his insider account puts more flesh on the bones.
But there were plenty of other reasons why so many died, reasons that long predate Johnson becoming prime minister – not least the calamitous failure to maintain PPE supplies, the dismantlement of the institutions needed to prepare for and deal with a pandemic effectively, and the death by a thousand cuts to the NHS.
None of that would have been different had Sunak or Gove been in Johnson’s shoes, even assuming either would actually have been capable of devising and implementing better policies, from lockdowns to care homes. That is the greater scandal and it is not one Cummings – or Kuenssberg – will talk about.
What Cummings did do yesterday – inadvertently – was draw back a little the curtain designed to conceal the charade that is “representative democracy”. If we can avoid being overly invested in the drama of the Cummings-Johnson grudge match, we have a chance to understand that the whole system is rotten from top to bottom.
It is precisely this corrupted and corrupting system of power – run by, and in the interests of, a tiny political and media elite – that spent five years ensuring Jeremy Corbyn would never reach 10 Downing Street, and is now weighing whether Sir Keir Starmer is a credible “alternative” should the Tories’ fortunes sink.
Johnson has good reason to be obsessed with the media, making U-turns “like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. As with one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, Johnson understands that it is chiefly the Murdoch empire and the BBC that decide his fate.
In the Corbyn era, Johnson faced no threat at all – he knew the BBC and Murdoch press had his back. They would never have supported Corbyn against him, however unsuitable and incompetent Johnson proved to be as prime minister. That was the real problem with Corbyn. It was not his supposed character or political flaws; it was that Britain became even more of a one-party state so long he led the opposition – with the media, the political system, even the Labour party bureaucracy itself determined at all costs to keep in power the leader of the Conservative party, whoever it was.
Cummings’ sudden candour is a sign that the establishment is now in a position to replace Johnson, and willing to groom whomever from its short-list is best placed to win over the British public – be it, Sunak, Gove or Starmer.
My latest: In waging war on Labour's left wing, Starmer is determined to prove that the party is a safe pair of hands for the British establishment. Labour is being reinvented as the Tory party of old, emphasising tradition, patriotism and family values https://t.co/Cs18fu7Om0
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) April 5, 2021
BBC on the back foot
It is perhaps not surprising that Cummings sought to embarrass the BBC’s Kuenssberg by singling her out among his media contacts, pretending that he rarely dealt with other reporters. Kuenssberg is probably the single most powerful journalist shaping the public’s perception of this government. And she has done a sterling job of veiling and excusing Johnson’s incompetence at every turn. Without her, Johnson would have been a great deal more vulnerable much earlier.
— Ise (@IssssssyP) May 26, 2021
What Cummings has subtly achieved is to force Kuenssberg on to the back foot. She is now prey to the charge – an entirely accurate one – that she has been riding shotgun for Johnson. She will need to distance herself more from him, to deal with No 10 “sources” more critically, in an attempt to prove Cummings wrong. And the new pressure on her to look less like what she is and what the BBC want her to be – a journalist hungry for access – will mean that, as a result, Johnson is more politically exposed, more vulnerable to challenge, than ever before.
For Cummings, it is a master-stroke.
What Cummings revealed – again not entirely intentionally – was that we are ruled by narcissists and charlatans, the “donkeys”: precisely the kind of people who crave power for power’s sake and are least equipped to run government wisely and compassionately.
The policy failings, the lies, the chaos, the inflated personality clashes – the scenes of pandemonium Cummings set out – are inevitable when a country has long been run as a one-party state, even if that party comes in two flavours, red and blue, that sometimes take turns in government.
The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of Britain’s one-party system particularly starkly only because of the scale of the threat and the suddenness of its arrival. The cost of the establishment’s corruption and incompetence was measured this time in tens of thousands of lives – lives that can no more be hidden from view than the Covid “Wall of Hearts”.
Here is how you imagine the 150k lives lost to Covid.
It’s just taken me 10 mins to walk the half kilometre length of the national @CovidMemorialUK wall, directly opposite parliament.
Each heart represents one of those 150k lost, those families changed forever.
Please share 💔 pic.twitter.com/xjNn9bXIrN
— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) April 8, 2021
But in normal times, donkeys like Johnson, Hancock, Sunak and Gove are ideally equipped to achieve the power elite’s goals, shunting capitalism’s costs out of view: on to the shoulders of the weak and vulnerable, those unheard on the margins of western society; to far-off lands, where the effects will be felt only by irrelevant black and brown people; and into the future, for our children to suffer the consequences.
Crackers by design
Even Cummings’ moments of apparent self-awareness were not quite what they seemed. He told MPs:
It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there [in a senior government position], just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there – and that the choice at the last election was Jeremy Corbyn.
But it isn’t crackers at all. It is by design. It is the way the system has evolved to keep a tiny wealth-elite in power. We have a narcissistic joker like Johnson in No 10 – just as Americans ended up with Donald Trump in the White House – because the public’s ability to think critically has been intentionally degraded over decades by a billionaire-owned press and a craven BBC that turned politics into the most cynical kind of entertainment.
Gary Younge on Corbyn: '…just not to trash him was enough to risk your reputation. It was clear that in the fetid ecosystem of journalists this would count you out of polite company.' https://t.co/igFAua1cmW
— Tom Mills (@ta_mills) May 27, 2021
When an opposition leader appeared, as if by accident, who actually wanted to use politics to transform the lives of ordinary people – rather than preserve the current predatory system of elite power – the corporate media lost no time turning him into a national security threat, a terrorist and an antisemite.
It is no accident that the one in power, Johnson, is the real clown. And it is no accident that the one out of power and in disgrace, Corbyn, was so easily made to look like a clown. The creation of an equivalence between them is more of the lies Cummings claims to be busting.
Cummings understands our weaknesses. We struggle to see how we are being manipulated. We listen credulously to flesh-and-blood journalists like Kuenssberg even as, in the abstract, we lose ever more trust in the media. We forget that by natural selection those drawn to the highest level of politics are invariably narcissists and master manipulators.
The result: we fall for their lies time and again. We listen to them uncritically, absorbing their cynicism and selfishness as truth, as honesty.
As Dominic Cummings knew we would.