InCummings Fire: The wankerweight title fight between Boris and Dom is on...

... and the newspapers are picking sides

Downing Street is shocked to discover that the result of starting a bucket of shit throwing contest with one of the biggest shits to ever sashay through the door of Number 10 has resulted in the Prime Minister looking like Ewan McGregor in that Trainspotting scene with the toilet.

As I wrote yesterday, it was strategic incompetence for Boris Johnson’s media operation to clumsily attempt to frame Dominic Cummings as the sole person involved in leaking details of Johnson’s many suspect decisions. It both inflated Cummings’ standing again and encouraged him to fill and fling his own bucket of shit, aiming it straight for the Prime Minister’s clownishly Etonian face.

Across the newspapers, this morning headlines talk of Cummings “declaring war” or “launching an attack” on the Prime Minister. But that’s inaccurate; while I don’t want to defend Dominic Cummings, he didn’t fire the first shot. Rather, his blog post is a counter-attack, a counter-punch, a counter-narrative.

The Number 10 operation could have made Cummings an irrelevance and ensured that his upcoming testimony to a parliamentary inquiry on the government’s handling of the pandemic could be dismissed as the bitter ramblings of a rogue ex-employee.

Instead — by painting him as the puppetmaster behind a wide range of leaking — it has made him the focus again. It’s less dead cat strategy and more applying electrodes to the cat and shocking it back into dangerous zombie life.

The Daily Telegraph deploys oddly-accented racism-excusing oddball Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, to explain the Cummings conflict. Beneath the headline Why Dominic Cummings is out to get Boris Johnson — which once again implies that the former advisor made punched first — Nelson writes that:

Nothing enrages the Prime Minister more than the suggestion that his fiancée has assembled her own informal power network in No 10. And the latest “Dom bomb” (as his online exposés are known) had more to say on this point.

Henry Newman, the new senior adviser to the Prime Minister, is identified as being “best friends” with Symonds – the implication being that her influence inside government is growing. We can expect far more on this point from him.

“Chatty rat”, “Princess Nut Nuts”, “Dom bombs”, arguments about who is “best friends” with whom — this isn’t an administration full of adults, it’s government by a group of particularly gossipy Year 5s.

Nelson’s argument is that Johnson’s newish team want to ditch policies that came in under Cummings and that the only way they can see to do that without it appearing to be a u-turn is to do down Dom:

How to do that? Typically, you blame the old regime. So a kind of semi-official war against Cummings – portraying him as an exiled mad monk, out to destroy the Brexit government he helped create – was one way to do it.

As we have seen, Cummings does not like being used as a fall guy – and will have plenty more to say at a time of his choosing. He is no staunch Tory, and has not much personal interest in the fate of the Government. But is he really a vandal who always intended to burn the whole place down? My guess, even now, is that he isn’t. It did not need to end in this kind of war. But it’s becoming harder to see, now, how war can be avoided.

Time for the meme again…

… because Nelson is right. While his column makes excuses for Johnson — references to ‘mistakes’ made in a crisis and an easy acceptance of the Prime Minister’s penchant for doing official business by off-the-books text messages — he concludes both that Cummings isn’t the main source of the leaks and that Treasury officials have just as much motivation to decry Johnson’s decisions.

In The Times, Steven 'Stenographer’ Swinford — bylined yesterday on the story spoonfed to him by Number 10 which claimed Cummings was ‘the chatty rat’ — plays dumb, writing:

Dominic Cummings launched a personal attack on Boris Johnson last night, accusing the prime minister of being “unethical” and falling “below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.

Swinford’s barely washed the shit off his hands from tossing it for Number 10 and he’s already suggesting that it was, in fact, Cummings who kicked off the synchronised dirty protests.

There are good reasons that Number 10 wants the clash with Cummings to be seen as a he said/he said row that doesn’t ‘cut through’ with the electorate. The Cummings blogpost is not simply a line by line rebuttal of the claims made by Downing Street, but also a list of new genuinely damaging claims about the priapic perpetually lying Prime Minister.

Cummings says that Johnson wanted to shut down the Cabinet Secretary’s inquiry into who leaked details of the second lockdown once it was suggested that the ‘chatty rat’ may, in fact, be Henry Newman — a close friend of Carrie Symonds, a Michael Gove ally, and now the Prime Minister’s senior advisor:

I told him that this was ‘mad’ and totally unethical, that he had ordered the inquiry himself and authorised the Cabinet Secretary to use more invasive methods than are usually applied to leak inquiries because of the seriousness of the leak. I told him that he could not possibly cancel an inquiry about a leak that affected millions of people, just because it might implicate his girlfriend’s friends.

Number 10 denies that Johnson interfered in a leak inquiry, but that’s not what Cummings is claiming. He says Johnson threatened to interfere. If the Prime Minister even attempted to halt the inquiry it would be yet another breach of the Ministerial Code from a man who treats those rules with only marginally more respect than he gave marriage vows.

And The Daily Mail is delighted to have more fodder for its ongoing story on ‘flatgate’ — the slow-rolling scandal about the cost of decorating the Prime Minister’s flat in Number 11, which he shares with Symonds. The newspapers are determined to paint her as Marie Antoinette with an iPhone and Cummings’ claims will help immensely:

The Prime Minister’s DOC [Director of Communications aka Jack Doyle — a former senior political reporter at The Daily Mail] has also made accusations regarding me and leaks concerning the PM’s renovation of his flat.

The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.

I refused to help him organise these payments. My knowledge about them is therefore limited. I would be happy to tell the Cabinet Secretary or Electoral Commission what I know concerning this matter.”

It would be stupid to swallow the accusations from Cummings — a man who retrospectively edited a previous blog post to make him look clever — wholesale. But the picture he paints of Boris Johnson chimes with the Prime Minister’s record of lying, dissembling, and half-arsing his jobs. Just because Cummings is a colossal dickhead doesn’t mean he's lying about the lot.

Unlike lobby correspondents, political reporters, and the Prime Minister himself, Cummings doesn’t have all that much to lose. His almost sociopathic disinterest in what the media or the public in general thinks of him is the biggest danger for Boris Johnson in this super-wankerweight title fight.

Meanwhile, The Times, having got in Johnson’s corner yesterday isn’t going to throw in the towel. Swinford has his name on a long version of how the rows, briefing and counter-briefing that led to the current war came about but he also contributes a puff story in today’s paper — briefed by Number 10 — about Boris Johnson’s latest money pit plan — a new “trade and investment” ship named after the dead Duke of Edinburgh. Look over there! No! Look over there instead!

The Times ‘in-depth’ narrative feature on the uproar — bylined to Swinford (Political Editor), Henry Zefferman (Chief Political Correspondent) and Oliver Wright (Policy Editor, no relation) — begins by describing Number 10’s attack on Cummings, which was briefed under embargo to three papers, as effectively an emotional and spur-of-the-moment decision:

Johnson is understood to have been cautioned against ordering such an overt attack on a man who was privy to so many secrets during his sixteen months as the prime minister’s most senior advisor. But he was undeterred.

“It was a knee-jerk thing,” said a government source. The prime minister was very angry and let rip.”

This is a calculated framing of events designed to suggest that Johnson was hurt and angry — not just to be ‘betrayed’ but to have the honour of his beloved questioned. That Boris Johnson has all the honour of an alleycat voted ‘most untrustworthy moggy’ five years in a row doesn’t seem to matter. We’re expected to believe that the big baby bossman was so angry that he had to lash out.

The piece continues:

Some suspect blaming Cummings for the leaks was part of a deliberate attempt by Downing Street to smear Cummings as a disgruntled ex-employee and to blunt the impact of whatever evidence he gives to the committee.

That worked well, didn’t it? By putting Cummings in the headlines again, the Number 10 press operation has managed to turn an appearance at a parliamentary inquiry from procedural to prime time.

One of the most striking claims in the article is that…

… at one point Johnson was contacted directly by a Universal Credit claimant asking for help with their benefit claim, having been given his mobile by a friend. The prime minister referred the issue to the Department for Work and Pensions, which resolved it.

While that tidbit may have been chucked to The Times to suggest that while the Prime Minister is chaotic he’s also ‘kind’, it simply adds to a picture of a man who approaches government with all the care that Bernard Black took with his taxes:

But The Times suggests — quoting an unnamed Tory pollster — that none of this will matter much as it’s just “Westminster soap opera” and that a soupçon of corruption and incompetence is what voters expect from Boris Johnson:

They said [while] focus groups had started to show that Labour attacks on ‘sleaze’ were resonating - it was so far not to a meaningful extent.

“At the moment it’s just part of the soap opera of Westminster.

“General sleaze people bring up — but not so much lobbying. No one is voting for the PM on the basis that they think he’s whiter than white. For better or worse they’ve taken the decision that they quite like him.”

That’s true until it’s not; if Cummings — who has proven himself adept at turning shit slinging into political results — keeps going for the Prime Minister and does, indeed, have piles of dirt on the dithering deceiver in Number 10, it could well start to look like a lot more than soap opera.

But that won’t stop columnists from shrugging and claiming that no one really cares about this stuff, even as they pen yet another column on it. Just today, Matt ‘Chuckles’ Chorley, the Times Radio presenter and haunted Victorian child mannequin, dismisses the idea of sleaze. In his ‘comedic’ column — which is reliably about as funny as an open grave — he writes:

We are meant to believe that Britain is a hotbed of corruption. But does anyone think that Boris Johnson is capable of masterminding a great mafia conspiracy at the heart of government? Our very own Don Calzone barely knows that gazpacho is a dish best served cold.

Who are they supposed to be in the pockets of? Big Pharma? Big Tobacco? Big Oil? Hardly. It’s just Gavin Williamson doing the work of Big Idiot. The closest we’ve got to a proper stinker was that business with Robert Jenrick signing off a property deal for ex-porn baron Richard Desmond, although it’s not clear what Jenrick got out of it. Unless he was secretly bunged a load of DVDs to hide in the loft of one of his many houses.

Jenrick got a donation for the Tory party out of that little chat and Desmond got to duck a multimillion-pound bill to Tower Hamlets, money which would have helped children and families in one of the UK’s most deprived boroughs.

On his weekday Times Radio show, Chorley promises to offer “politics without the boring bits”, but that translates to taking a crushingly facile approach, boiling down even the most serious issues to puns and personalities.

While he jokingly craves the ‘90s-style corruption of brown envelopes, Chorley’s crushingly unfunny column contributes to the notion that Britain is fine, exceptional even, rather than a place where ‘polite’ graft is commonplace. The corruption of British politics is time delayed — a favour now paid for with an infeasibly well-paid speech later.

We know that the Conservative Party has taken an easy-breezy attitude to Russian money in the UK while funnelling huge amounts of it into its own party coffers. Boris Johnson’s second career as a part-time tennis pro for the wives of oligarchs is just part of that. And yet Chorley chuckles that the PM is incapable "of masterminding a great mafia conspiracy”.

Perhaps if Chorley bothered with “the boring bits” he’d understand that most of the corruption that makes our system so unequal, so broken, so vile is not the kind of elaborate heist that you’d find in a Guy Ritchie gangster flick. It’s prosaic and pervasive. It is the corruption of the whispered favour and belated payoff. It is a corruption that the nepotism-encrusted British media is eminently comfortable with because it’s the kind of corruption that it engages in daily.

You’ll be told that Johnson vs. Cummings is just a scrap, a distraction, a ‘dead cat’ that won’t make a jot of difference to the raging residents of the Red Wall. But that’s patronising in the extreme. The media wants, as ever, to play it both ways — filling page after page with the fight while suggesting that this is just court hijinks that doesn’t play beyond the Westminster Bubble. Well, it should.

In those 1,000 words that he dropped on his blog yesterday, Cummings offered enough accusations to justify the beginning or expansion of several inquiries. Cummings isn’t a hero or even an anti-hero, he’s a boiled egg with anger issues, but if he can explode the corruption around the Johnson administration, he might just leave a legacy worth having.

Just don’t expect most of the newspapers to stop mopping the Prime Minister’s brow until it’s already abundantly clear that he’s about to be knocked out. That’s when they’ll finally claim to have delivered the knockout punch.