Clubber Cummings vs. Krusher Kuenssberg: This wasn’t an interview, it was as staged as a WWE title clash

This was sold as a shoot but it was a work — a fake battle packed with pre-determined revelations. Now the press will attack the winner with folding chairs.

kayfabe
noun
ˈkeɪ.feɪb

(in professional wrestling) the fact or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic.

The music used to score the trailers for Dominic Cummings: The Interview was portentous while the montages of moments from the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor’s career stretched to make him at worst a malevolent Mr Bean and at best Loki with an embarrassing love for leisurewear.

The conversation between Cummings and the BBC News’ Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg went out at 7 pm on BBC2; primetime billing for a clash that on paper should have appealed only to the kind of wonks who watched Cummings’ seven-hour grudge match with the parliamentary select committees.

BBC News has put out a series of three podcasts on BBC Sounds containing more material from the Cummings interview but I’m going to focus on the BBC2 broadcast — available on iPlayer — as that’s the conversation that most viewers will encounter and it’s the edit that received the most promotion.

It began with Kuenssberg presenting a kind of ersatz toughness, a plastic Paxmanism, designed to show that this was not just a cosy chat between a journalist and her former best source or a political operator using a hack as the channel for his own angles.

It was laughable when Kuenssberg began by saying, “Mr Cummings, you’ve never spoken like this before…” given that it was and is an open secret that he was often her “senior Number 10 source” during his time in government. This was the pretence of distance, the first example of the tactical ignorance that she would go on to show throughout the interview.

When Cummings recounted with a slight smile the Boris Johnson said it would be “ludicrous for him to be Prime Minister”, Kuenssberg did her best Joe Pesci in Goodfellas act:

Why's it funny? Why’s it funny to you that you helped put someone into power who in your own view — and you’re telling us today, in his view — that it’s ludicrous for him to be in the job?

This ‘tough’ line would have perhaps been mildly convincing if the BBC had not cut away with unseemly haste when Cummings told the parliamentary select committee that Kuenssberg had been his main conduit for leaks within No. 10:

The main person I really spoke to in the whole of 2020 was Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC…

The moment those words left his mouth, the corporation’s coverage on BBC Two came to an end with the rest of his Cummings’ words muted for viewers on that channel. They had to leap over to the BBC News Channel to continue watching.

A major portion of the interview was dedicated to relitigating the Barnard Castle affair and picking over the semantics of how, why, and when Cummings lied. It’s trivia compared to the 130,000 death from Covid — many of them needless — and the continuing callousness and incompetence coming from government, but it’s the kind of narrative that British political journalists crave.

There’s also a personal element for Kuenssberg. She was one of the small group of political journalists who sat in the Downing Street rose garden to question Cummings during his notorious press conference and, prior to that, she jumped in quickly to shoot down Pippa Crerar’s scoop that Cummings was facing a potential police investigation for breaking lockdown rules.

On May 22, 2020, Crerar tweeted out a link to her exclusive with the line…

EXCLUSIVE: Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings was investigated by police after breaking the Government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules.

… and Kuenssberg quickly replied beneath it:

Source says his trip was within guidelines as Cummings went to stay with his parents so they could help with childcare while he and his wife were ill - they insist no breach of lockdown

It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the source, in that case, was Dominic Cummings given that the excuse given was word for word the one he’d later present in public. At the time, the BBC issued a clod-hopping defence of the Kuenssberg tweet, saying:

As the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg’s role is to provide our audiences with an impartial analysis of key political developments, based on her knowledge and expert judgment, and she often uses social media as a tool in her day to day work. We don’t consider that Laura was tweeting in defence of Dominic Cummings. Laura was simply reporting information from a source, and we believe this was clearly stated in her tweet.

That bird may waddle like a duck, quack like a duck, and shit all over the quayside like a duck but we don’t consider it to be a duck.

In that context, Kuenssberg’s insistent questioning of Cummings over what he said about the Barnard Castle affair and when feels more personal than political.

He used her to push out his line and she now knows the line was partial at best. In his subsequent testimony to the parliamentary select committees, Cummings has said the dart up to Durham was due to ongoing security concerns at his family home in London.

This led to the first of several of what I’m going to call Captain Renault moments from Laura Kuenssberg:

Kuenssberg: Why didn’t you just tell the truth at the time?

Cummings: Well, the situation was… erm… It was an extremely chaotic situation.

Kuenssberg: But you decided not to tell the truth, you didn’t have to give a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden and tell the story.

Cummings: That was not at all the original plan… the original plan was when I discussed it with the Prime Minister on the Saturday and the Sunday was, given he knew what actually happened, he agreed we should say nothing about it, the media will say whatever the media is going to say, there’s all kinds of conspiracy theories buzzing around, we’ll just ignore it.

What then happened on the Monday is that he suddenly changed his mind and said, ‘We can’t stick with the original plan, you’re going to have to explain it to people.’ I said: ‘I’m not going into all the security stuff’ and the whole thing became a huge, huge mess.

Kuenssberg: So together you agree that it was better for you to tell a story that wasn’t true than to stay silent.

Cummings: Everything I said in the rose garden was true/I just, I just…

Kuenssberg: It was not the whole truth, not near it…

Cummings: … but I did not — everything I said was true — but I didn’t go into all of the security concerns and the background, no.

Kuenssberg: It was a very different story, Mr Cummings, it was a very different story. you and Boris Johnson decided it was better to give the public — many of whom were absolutely furious with what you had done — you decided together it was better to give the public a story that was not the 100% truth, than to keep silent or even for you to resign. That would have made it go away…

Just as Captain Renault in Casablanca declares himself to be “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on” before being handed a pile of money by a croupier, Laura Kuenssberg is shocked, shocked to find that lies and distortions are going on in politics while talking to the man who handed her lines for months.

Kuenssberg was not alone. Last night’s broadcast provoked synchronised pearl-clutching from many members of the British political press. After Cummings made a direct reference to the think-tanks and other dark money influences that played a big role in achieving Brexit and getting him into government, The Daily Mirror’s Whitehall correspondent Mikey Smith tweeted:

Dominic Cummings openly described a ‘network’ of a dozen or so unnamed figures, with whom he secured first Brexit and then a position at the top of government. If someone had written that a year ago, they’d have been laughed at and called a conspiracy theorist.

The influence of opaquely funded groups — many of them centred around Tufton Street — has been an open secret for decades. Either Smith and his colleagues are play-acting, more of that highly useful tactical ignorance being deployed, or he and the rest of the Westminster press pack are even bigger rubes than I already imagined.

This is a big problem with the British system of political reporting, which tilts more towards acting like a gaggle of gossip columnists focused on a particular ugly cohort of ‘stars’ than being a group of serious people engaged in analysing policies, systems, and power dynamics. It’s far easier to obsess over personality and how something is ‘playing’, and to act like there are ‘rules’ despite being shown time and time again that they don’t exist or won’t be enforced.

The Captain Renaults of the Westminster press pack pretended to be shocked last night because while it’s obvious that dirty deals trump such antique notions as ‘public service’ and ‘honour’, you’re not meant to say it out loud. Cummings, for his own self-aggrandising, self-dealing reasons, has decided to break kayfabe and political correspondents, reliant on the narrative, find that hard to deal with.

After Cummings talked about discussions happening about ditching Boris Johnson just weeks after he walked into Downing Street, Kuenssberg contorted her face into wide-eyed shock and said:

Can you hear yourself? Do you think normal people think it’s okay for a group of unelected people to discuss getting rid of an elected Prime Minister?

Whether or not it’s okay, it’s a simple fact of the British political system. We do not have open primaries and the major party candidates for Prime Minister are chosen by a combination of their colleagues’ whims and the desires of their party memberships. The Tory Party is even keener on stabbing people in the back than an Ides of March reenactment group.

Earlier in the interview, Kuenssberg pretended — or at least I hope she was pretending — to be shocked that Cummings wanted Johnson to be Prime Minister for purely pragmatic reasons and that he sought to ensure that his agenda would be carried out in Number 10. It made it look like she thinks realpolitik is a fancy term for arguments that happen in Spanish football team dressing rooms.

I don’t happen to believe that Kuenssberg is naive. You don’t reach or retain the position she holds without having an understanding of how the plumbing of British politics operates — from where the shit flows and where it ends up. Rather I think she believes the audience is naive and so she had to put herself in their shoes when talking to Cummings, mugging at his unshocking revelations to both provide them with some drama and to illustrate that these pedestrian facts about how politics is conducted are not normal.

But they are, unfortunately, and I think we would be in a far better place if the political journalists employed to analyse these stories and conduct these interviews treated their listeners and viewers as grown-ups rather than producing the Listen With Mother meets Tellytubbies goonery of programmes like the perpetually glib Newscast podcast and Dominic Cummings: The Interview with its patronising ‘noddy’ shots of Kuenssberg reacting to Cummings’ answers with increasingly cartoonish expressions.

One of the moments in last night’s broadcast that connects most to issues often discussed in this newsletter was when Cummings recounted that the Prime Minister had called The Daily Telegraph his “real boss”. Kuenssberg repeated those words slowly with that well-practised faux shock: “The Prime. Minister. calls. The. Daily. Telegraph. his. ‘real’. ‘boss’?”

To anyone with even the remotest interest in British politics or the media knows that The Daily Telegraph — which paid Johnson over £200,000 a year for a single weekly column — is his once and future home. His time as Prime Minister is effectively a poorly paid sabbatical in his eyes, a means of multiplying his future earnings by adding the title “former-Prime Minister” to his brand along with “ex-Mayor of London”.

The boy who wanted to be “world king” has grown up to be a man who is not much enamoured with being Prime Minister, a job that comes with piles of paperwork and lots of detail to be across when Boris Johnson would much rather be across someone else’s wife. Of course, he was willing to allow Dominic Cummings to do the boring policy stuff until it became apparent to him that everyone was saying he was his chief advisor's puppet and his girlfriend, now wife, started pushing him to properly take control.

Of course, The Daily Telegraph’s assessment of Dominic Cummings: The Interview, written by Gordon Rayner, the paper’s starring role doesn’t get a mention. Instead, under the headline How Dominic Cummings started to resemble a crazed cult leader, Rayner compares the Kuenssberg interview to Emily Maitlis’ polite evisceration of sweat denier and top Yelp! reviewer at Jeffrey Epstein’s homes, Prince Andrew. It’s a cheap comparison but one that fits the tactic of making Cummings the real villain while the bumbling bastard in chief gets off largely unscathed, free to return to his beloved Telegraph byline.

One part of Rayner’s write-up, in particular, reveals the shine of his brass neck:

[Cummings] and his cabal of former Vote Leave acolytes had plotted to overthrow Boris Johnson “within days” of the thumping general election win, he said, because “we” knew better. It was “ludicrous” that Mr Johnson was in power, he said, and he was “obviously” trying to bring about his downfall, and “the sooner the better, for sure”.

There is a large cabal of “former Vote Leave acolytes” at The Daily Telegraph, many of whom were quite delighted with Cummings’ tactics when they were used to their advantage. You need only take a look at the Brexit Media Corps list, printed for one of the Leave camp’s self-aggrandising victory dinners. It features numerous Telegraph columnists including: Janet Daly, Camilla Tominey, Liam Halligan, Sherelle Jacobs, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Tim Stanley, Christopher Hope and Allister Heath, among others.

Rayner and The Daily Telegraph are not offended that Cummings and his dirty tricks have besmirched the good name of British politics, but just that he’s started to use them against the Conservative Party and, in particular, their beloved big baby Boris.

Meanwhile, in The Daily Mail, Sarah Vine has reappeared and compares her “old friend Dom” to Meghan and Harry (well, of course, she does), quotes Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and accuses him of betrayal. I wonder what version of this column we would have got if she was still with Cummings’ old boss Gove.

Over at The Guardianjust another franchise in the professional wrestling-style world of British journalism — Zoe Williams opts for another line of attack:

Having tried and failed to get the people of Britain interested in the fact that their prime minister lacks any human empathy – “OK, it’s not great,” we shrugged from our different pockets of the political spectrum, “but also, we already knew that” – Cummings decided to try a new tack: radical openness. What if everyone could see what was really going on behind the curtain? Would we still be using words like “yawn” and “priced in” then?

So he revealed that, within days of the 2019 election, he and the rest of the Vote Leave team were already discussing how to get rid of Boris Johnson and get someone else in as prime minister. There’s no reason to disbelieve his version of events; it’s not as though there’s a queue of more credible sources lining up to dispute it. But it does sound a bit like a nine-year-old trying to explain the plot of The Godfather.

So, Cummings is probably right but he’s stupid and a doo-doo-head so we shouldn’t really bother to engage too much with the detail.

For the FBPE-inclined commentators of the centrist papers, Cummings is Schrodinger's political manipulator — at once a diabolical genius who tricked the UK into voting for Brexit and a vainglorious idiot who doesn’t know anything about anything. I’m sure the fact that he consistently ridicules columnists and has proved them wrong on an embarrassing number of occasions plays no role in this astute analysis.

I think to understand Cummings, you need to look back to the notorious US Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who he referenced in a tweet earlier this week. Like Atwater, Cummings is outwardly unbothered by other people’s opinions of him while actually wanting to be seen as a smart boy. Like Atwater, he is willing to do any number of despicable things to ensure his candidate wins.

Atwater only tried to go for retribution when he claimed to have found God as he was dying of brain cancer and started to send out letters apologising to those he had wronged during his kerosene-soaked political career. Cummings seems to be undertaking an even-less convincing truth and reconciliation effort now. It’s less convincing because he’s also still trying to show he’s right.

The media and politicians have responded and will continue to respond by casting Cummings as a vengeful former mastermind/moron because he is doing something that is explicitly not allowed — he’s breaking kayfabe at every turn. Just look at the moment last night when he blatantly stated that Vote Leave had cuckooed the Conservative Party to get what it wanted and that he would — if he could — create a new party to destroy it for good.

Cummings is no less of a character than Boris Johnson but he is now engaged in what wrestlers tend to do near the end of their careers: Breaking that character to explain how the narrative was constructed, how the moves work, and who really hates who and why. The analysis of his comments from those who rely on the kayfabe for their livelihoods will always seek to discredit his every word. After all, if it’s just a story, what are they all doing there?

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