Hancock’s arf hour: On The Times' laughable attempts to diminish and dismiss Dominic Cummings’ claims

From the news reports to the 'funny' columns, The Times is dedicated to making excuses for Boris Johnson's government.

There’s an old and overused quote that “when a dog bites a man that’s not news, but when a man bites a dog that’s news”. It came to mind this morning when I looked at the front page of The Times — which features neither the news that Boris Johnson has been cleared of breaching the ministerial code nor that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, was found guilty of a ‘minor’ breach of the code.

I grumbled to myself for a moment, something I’m wont to do often but most acutely at 3.35 am, but then I remembered:

Lord Geidt clearing Johnson of wrongdoing is not man bites dog, it’s tame dog appointed by man barks just as he was chosen to do. And there is no shock either in discovering that The Times’ news and comment pages are putting their weight behind an effort to undermine, diminish, and dismiss this week’s claims from Dominic Cummings.

Let’s start with how The Times has written up those decisions by Geidt, who started as the Prime Minister’s Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests just over a month ago. His report should have been his predecessor Sir Alex Allan’s — due in December 2020 and covering the period from December 2019, but Sir Alex quit on the 20 November 2020 after Boris Johnson completely ignored his recommendation to sack Priti Patel.

The Times headlines its story on Geidt’s ruling about Johnson, ‘Unwise’ Boris Johnson failed to ask how Downing Street flat was being paid for, and political reporter George Grylls writes:

Boris Johnson has been censured for failing to take an interest in his own finances after an official report claimed he was unaware for four months that a Tory donor had paid for his Downing Street flat to be refurbished.

In a report published yesterday, Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, criticised the prime minister for “unwisely” allowing the renovation of the No 11 apartment to proceed “without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.

Geidt cleared Johnson, however, of breaking the ministerial code after concluding he had found out about the alleged £58,000 donation from Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row only when he read about it in the press this year.

… In his report, Geidt, 59, confirmed that Johnson appointed Brownlow to chair a new “Downing Street Trust”. Its stated aim was to maintain the historic buildings of No 10 and No 11. Geidt noted that taxpayers picked up the initial tab before Brownlow, a Tory donor, directly settled a bill with Lytle reportedly worth £58,000 in October.

Having spoken to Johnson, however, Geidt concluded that officials who knew about the donation failed to inform the prime minister. He paid for the work himself in March after apparently reading about the matter in the press.

Geidt said: “While a genuine endeavour, the trust was not subjected to a scheme of rigorous project management. Given the level of the prime minister’s expectations for the trust . . . this was a significant failing. Instead, the prime minister — unwisely, in my view — allowed the refurbishment at No 11 to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded.”

Geidt, a former private secretary to the Queen and a paid advisor to arms firm BAE systems, is a man of the establishment predisposed to accept the establishment’s excuses. Ignorance is no defence it seems unless you’re the Prime Minister when ignorance is positively encouraged.

No one who has ever watched a political drama or mob movie will be unaware of the idea of plausible deniability; but, perhaps demonstrating his own dose of tactical ignorance, Lord Geidt has accepted that the “unwise” Prime Minister simply racked up a huge bill but didn’t wonder for a moment where the money to settle it came from.

The Hancock story is equally maddening. The Times accompanies its report with an image of the Health Secretary looking like a spaniel who has just taken a dump on its owner’s best rug. The headline reads Matt Hancock breached ministerial code over NHS contract for sister’s firm and Grylls writes:

In a report published yesterday, Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, ruled that Hancock properly declared his financial interest in the company earlier this year.

However, Geidt said that Hancock’s failure to declare that his sister’s company had been awarded a framework contract with NHS Shared Business Services in 2019 was a technical breach of the ministerial code because the involvement of his close family member could have been seen as a conflict of interest.

He said that it was only a “minor breach” because it had been “in no way deliberate” and he said that Hancock was someone who “acted with integrity”.

Some people have face blindness. I suspect Lord Geidt suffers from bullshit blindness, the medical inability to detect when someone is lying to your face, since Hancock’s explanation to the Prime Minister amounts to saying, “I had a stake in this company that my sister runs but I don’t really talk to my sister about it or her life in general…” Grylls continues:

After Geidt’s findings Hancock wrote to Boris Johnson, explaining that he was not aware that Topwood had been awarded the framework contract.

“At that point, in February 2019, I had no involvement in, interest in, ownership of, or anything else to do with the company,” he wrote. “I did not know about the framework decision, and so I do not think I could reasonably have been expected to declare it.”

Johnson replied confirming that he would take no action against Hancock, who has come under pressure in recent days following a series of allegations made by Dominic Cummings, the former Downing Street adviser, about the health secretary’s handling of the pandemic.

The prime minister said that the minor breach of the ministerial code “should in no way impugn your good character or ministerial record”.

Boris Johnson ruling on someone else’s “good character” is like asking Joseph Fritzl to judge a competition to find Austria’s Best Basements.

Elsewhere in the paper’s news section, sterling government stenographer and The Times Deputy Political Editor Steven Swinford is joined by the paper’s Policy Editor Oliver Wright and its Home Affairs Editor Matt Dathan for an anonymous source-splattered splurge through events in Downing Street this week.

Beneath the headline, Johnson breathes a sigh of relief but Dominic Cummings is playing a long game, the offer up a buffet of bloviating, belligerence and bullshit from anonymous Boris Johnson allies designed to enhance the idea that Dominic Cummings was merely a disgruntled former employee.

The piece opens with the unbelievable scene of the media-obsessed Johnson not remotely paying any attention to Cummings’ committee appearance on Wednesday. Swinford, Wright and Dathan write:

Boris Johnson spent Wednesday doing his best to ignore the extraordinary events unfolding a few hundred yards away in parliament as Dominic Cummings gave his explosive evidence to MPs.

While Cummings was castigating his former employer as unfit for office, Johnson was getting ready for prime minister’s questions in the Cabinet room where the television wasn’t on.

We are in the realms of one of those dubious movies that open proceedings by claiming the action is “based on a true story”. The piece continues:

Privately, Johnson is said to be relieved that the hearing, which has been anticipated for months, is over. “He feels pissed off and let down, but he’s not worried about it,” one ally said. “The prime minister thinks the world now sees what he saw — someone who leaks, is totally inconsistent and self-serving. Would you want Dominic Cummings to work for you? The attacks just got more and more hysterical.”

A cabinet minister added: “It is extraordinary that every success was his and every failure attributable to someone else. He provided no evidence at all for his attacks on Hancock which are simply wrong. No one worked harder than Matt tackling this pandemic.”

A dog tied to a lamp post walking round and round in a circle, getting their lead increasingly tangled up, could be said to be “working hard” but it’s not getting anywhere. Cummings’ accusations against Hancock weren’t that he hadn’t worked ‘hard’ but that he screwed up and lied on multiple occasions, and there is plenty of evidence already in the public domain to back those claims.

Friends of Dominic Cummings — or perhaps Cummings in a series of ludicrous wigs doing a range of funny voices — do pop up in the piece…

“He’s looking 12 months down the line,” one person familiar with Cummings’s thinking said. “The opinion polls suggesting that it’s not cutting through are meaningless. He’s not interested in that. He’s interested in doing long-term damage to Boris.”

Another ally said: “The focus in Westminster and No 10 that it’s not cutting through is lazy and shows a lack of political insight. This isn’t about instantly transforming public opinion.

… but the bulk of the narrative comes straight from Number 10 and the Dept of Health with a cavalcade of Johnson and Hancock ‘confidantes’ lining up to throw buckets of piss on Cummings. Though the quotes are often unintentionally unhelpful to the Prime Minister and Health Secretary:

The health secretary is said to be “sanguine” about the criticism from Cummings. “He’s relentlessly focused on doing the very best he can on the pandemic. He’s compartmentalised it.”

Another source said that the evidence from Cummings had been revelatory to Hancock. “He didn’t realise the extent to which Dom was actively trying to undermine him,” the source said. “He’s a snake.”

Others in government use far stronger language about Cummings.

“He gives psychopaths a bad name,” they said. “He’s full of shit, he’s such a liar. He sat there in the committee and apologised to families who have lost loved ones like he’s someone who cares… He created a culture of fear and intimidation — there were the threats of hard rain, having a 27-year-old special adviser marched out of Downing Street at gunpoint.”

Admitting the Hancock didn’t realise that Cummings absolutely hates him does nothing to dispel the idea that the Health Secretary is the product of grafting a cocker spaniel’s brain into the body of the founder of a failing tech startup.

Similarly, highlighting the story of Sonia Khan, who was marched out of Downing Street and had her case for unfair dismissal settled with a five-figure payout in November 2020, does illustrate what a total shit Cummings is but it also reminds the reader of how comfortable Boris Johnson is with bullies so long as they’re working in his interests.

Johnson’s spinners also use the piece by Swinford et al. to kick Rishi Sunak in the shins. The article continues:

Then there are others whom Cummings notably failed to criticise, in particular Rishi Sunak, who argued strongly against a September lockdown.

One Tory said this had raised suspicions about whether Sunak and Cummings were in indirect contact.

“Rishi is playing a dumb ass game,” they said. “There is a suspicion his allies have a back channel to Dom and there is a line of communication there. That is not doing him any favours.” A Treasury source strongly denied the claims and said Sunak has not spoken to Cummings since he left Government.

Once again this all sounds like a bunch of overgrown schoolboys playing at intrigue. It’s just unfortunate that they actually run the country.

In The Times’ Comment Section, the distraction tactics continue. The Very Few Chuckles Brothers — Giles Coren and Matt Chorley — both dedicate their columns to Johnson and Cummings, while painfully polite racist and former parliamentarian Matthew Parris offers more excuses beneath a deceptively critical headline.

Coren picks up the claim that Johnson was working on his long-delayed book on Shakespeare when he should have been focused on the early signs of pandemic. His column, Sir Boris Falstaff saves merry England from plague, follows his usual pattern of flogging a joke until it dies then molesting the corpse. I’d quote from it but I’d feel like I was posting dog turds through your letterbox. Click the link above at your own risk.

Chorley, possessor of Fleet Street’s most self-satisfied chuckling byline photo, opts for the arse-clenchingly awful line — Courting controversy, Cummings is the Prince Harry of politics:

A youthful flirtation with the right followed by public rehabilitation into the establishment. A slow realisation of never becoming king. An explosive televised interview, reopening wounds, settling scores in a hail of hearsay and heresy. Hating the media while being sustained by it. Truly Dominic Cummings is the Prince Harry of politics. Having believed he could change the arcane, stuffy institution from within, he is determined to destroy it from without, one soundbite at a time.

Oh God. It’s only a matter of time before he has a podcast, isn’t it? Cummings All Over will take a moment of historical controversy — the Battle of Hastings, who shot JR, Aldi’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar — and explain during seven hours of monologue why it was all Matt Hancock’s fault. The big fat liar. Then he can turn his attention to Notacluedo, a true crime podcast in which he explains how he came to be splattered in blood at the crime scene and holding the murder weapon, but was completely innocent. It definitely wasn’t Dom in the cabinet room with the whiteboard.

This is Chorley’s usual tedious schtick — a single tenuous analogy stretched to breaking point like an ageing Stretch Armstrong doll. By the end of any given column, the analogy has broken, the reader is covered in vaguely toxic goo and feeling bad about themselves, and Chorley has wandered off still chuckling.

But the clowning from Coren and Chorley has a purpose beyond clumsy comedy. Just as Chorley’s radio show claims to offer “politics without the boring bits”, the pair’s columns exist to make everything a bit glib, a bit of laugh, and contribute to the broader culture where bullshitters can get away with it.

Isn’t it funny that Boris Johnson might have been working on a book when he should have been working on protecting the nation? Isn’t it a hoot that the media is telling its readers, listeners, and viewers that we’ve all moved on from the government’s failings? A hoot, that is, for everyone but the families of the 130,000 dead and the many others who are suffering from Long Covid.

Matthew Parris’ column is meant to be serious but, in its own way, it’s as laughable as Chorley and Coren’s contributions. Beneath a headline and intro that offer the false promise of real criticism —

The patience of voters will snap in the end
It might appear Johnson is unharmed by Cummings’s revelations but the inconvenient truths can’t be ignored for ever

— Parris actually offers a series of distractions, digressions, and delusions that form excuses for both Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. He writes:

Perhaps Boris Johnson will be shown to have said something like “let the bodies pile up” but he will be able convincingly to protest that in context it carried nothing like the meaning that Cummings alleges. At the time, many intelligent and public-spirited people entertained thoughts that could be caricatured in that phrase but what we meant was that there was always going to be a trade-off between killing people and killing people’s livelihoods. Be clear: we could have saved many lives by effecting a more complete shut-down of the economy while sealing ourselves off from the world but we chose (arguably rightly) not to do that. And by that choice, we encompassed the deaths of thousands. That’s all Johnson might have meant.

No doubt Cummings was foolish to claim he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyes but the media have plucked this from a tangle of thoughts any of us might have had while proposing a small trip to check whether a bigger trip was wise. What he did was wrong and silly but I can imagine doing it myself.

Perhaps Johnson did speculate that Covid-19 warnings might turn out to be a false alarm, like swine flu. But remember: swine flu did prove a false alarm. Potential epidemics often do. As in war, so in health emergencies, history is written by the winners and over the last year a consensus has gathered that Britain should have cracked down faster and sooner. Yes, but it’s a mistake to project that consensus back to the beginning, before it existed, and other points of view were available.

Perhaps Johnson did shilly-shally like a shopping trolley but you could also call this hesitation and hesitation sometimes proves right. No doubt Cummings did reach a quick and (we now know) correct decision but there’s a fine line between being decisive and being rash. Perhaps Cummings did warn Johnson about what the cabinet needed to do but “warn” is a flexible word, its meaning ranging from covering your back with a cautionary memo, never followed up, and the Cassandra-like cries he’d like us to believe he uttered.

It’s the establishment making excuses for the establishment. Parris indulges in a kind of fan-fiction, speculating on what the characters might have said and done and why. When he writes later that Cummings has “an attractive honesty”, it’s like praising the Mekon for being a lovely shade of green.

Similarly, his conclusion that Matt Hancock is “a wide-eyed panto optimist” is unintentionally chilling. Hancock is a 42-year-old man. Praising him for puppy-dog enthusiasm, a trait which makes him always seem mere minutes from soiling a lamp post would be ludicrous in normal times. It’s unhinged when reviewing the performance of a senior minister who was central to the nation’s response to an existential crisis of unprecedented scale.

Parris makes excuses for Cummings, Hancock, and Johnson because they are people like him; people from privilege who live in close proximity to power. If they were of a poor and powerless, he’d be very quick to castigate them for their cruelty, fecklessness, and self-interest.

That’s the prism through which you need to consider The Times’ elisions, excuses and jokey exclamations on behalf of Johnson and his government. They are their kind of people so they give them the benefit of the doubt. The Times is a paper for those people in Britain who live largely consequence-free lives; if it started calling for consequences for the most powerful, where would it stop?