POLITICS
16/06/2021 23:00 BST | Updated 16/06/2021 23:18 BST

Cummings Wants Hancock’s Scalp, But Keir Starmer Is Right To Focus On The PM

Blaming the health secretary would give Johnson a convenient alibi for his own failures

“Brevity is the soul of wit/And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.” Thanks to his latest long, long blogpost, Dominic Cummings has perhaps proved one thing beyond doubt: he’s no student of Shakespeare.

With his 7,286 words, wonky screenshots and phone snaps, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser displayed once more a literary incontinence that only the internet can allow. It was not so much a stream of consciousness as a scream of bumptiousness, laced with venom.

Cummings’ new opus was seen as both tedious and treacherous by many Tory MPs, who share a mutual loathing with the ex-Vote Leave chief. The public too appear to have long ago concluded that he is far from a credible witness in any prosecution case against Johnson’s failings on Covid.

The mastermind of the £350m-a-week-for-the-NHS on that bus, the genius behind the ‘76 million Turks are joining the EU’ poster, is hardly the man to lead the charge against lying in politics.

And there’s no question that Cummings is in many ways his own worst enemy. His renewed character assassination attempt on Matt Hancock was so relentless that it undermined some of the more sensible points he tried to make about the failures of governance at the start of the pandemic. Talk about blogging a dead horse, we get that he hates Hancock already.

Yet if you got beyond the word-blizzard, the repeated use of italics for emphasis, the ACRONYMS and bolded out jargon, the obsessive lists of lettered (A to E) and numbered (1 to 4) paragraphs, there were some nuggets that ought to concern everyone well before the public inquiry begins.

Hancock’s claim in March to have got PPE supplies “all sorted” was undermined by an official telling Cummings that procurement rules and cost concerns meant masks, gloves and gowns being shipped rather than flown from China. Most damning of all was Johnson’s WhatsApp message, “On PPE it’s a disaster. I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting Gove on.”

Similarly, on delays in getting more ventilators, the PM’s verdict was just as withering: “It’s Hancock. He has been hopeless.” And on the health secretary’s failure to get more Covid testing, Johnson upped the disdain with that eye-catching expletive: “Totally fucking hopless.”

It’s worth saying that on the central charge that Hancock “lied”, the jury remains out because there is no recording of what he actually promised in the Cabinet room. Cummings again claimed cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill said that he and other ministers and officials lacked confidence in Hancock’s “honesty”.

But while saying this conversation was “reinforced in written exchanges”, he failed to publish them. We now await for the Commons select committees to get Sedwill’s own version. I recall No.10 admitting it hadn’t contacted the former cabinet secretary (who, let’s not forget, Cummings helped to oust from his job). Surely the MPs have asked him about such a serious charge?

Given that Cummings’ blog dropped shortly before PMQs, some have accused Keir Starmer of missing an open goal by failing to quote the “fucking hopeless” claim. Yet I can see why the Labour leader opted not to focus on Hancock, partly because blaming him may end up being Johnson’s alibi come any public inquiry. “Hopeless Hancock” could be reshuffled soon, too.

Starmer did quote Cummings, but only on his previous claim that Johnson had a chaotic border policy. He realised that while the personality politics of last year’s sweary WhatsApps may make good newspaper copy, the public are more focused on the here and now of why the Indian variant has been allowed to let rip.

Raising again the issue of proper payments for self-isolation (on the day it seems the Cabinet Office has its own internal document urging just that), plus the ending of business rate relief and full furlough, showed he was talking to immediate concerns not historic ones. Hospitality and small businesses groups contacted Starmer after PMQs thanking him for raising their lack of support and clarity, I’m told.

And Starmer’s strategic target is of course the PM himself. That’s why Labour talks about ‘the Johnson variant’ of the virus and it’s why it will keep hammering its message that lax border controls may have undermined all the hard work of both the public and the NHS’s vaccine programme.

Yet there was material in the Cummings blog that will come in useful in attacking Johnson. We learned for the first time that the PM had texted to his advisers “how do we win the herd immunity argument?” The full text of that was frustratingly not reproduced (and Johnson is bound to argue he didn’t go ahead with that argument anyway).

The account of how Johnson runs meetings, avoiding conflict, failing to ask proper questions to officials, “doing a thumbs-up and pegging it out of the room before anybody can disagree”, sounded all too realistic. This at least proved the PM is as blithe in private as he is in public, but it’s a worrying lack of leadership nevertheless. Starmer, in the G7 statement later, had a wounding line that Johnson was a “host, not a leader, a tour guide, not a statesman”.

For his part, Johnson in PMQs showed again why he’s a formidably cynical politician. Every question was batted away with “Brexit, vaccines, flip-flop Starmer, Brexit, vaccines, flip-flop Starmer”. His jibe that “Captain Hindsight needs to adjust his retrospectoscope” was actually pretty funny.

Faced with such spin and sleight of hand, Starmer can only hope that the public will one day tire of the jokes and the failures of governance. He needs to combine the air of being a grown-up in the room with his own message of optimism, just as Joe Biden persuaded Americans that the crazy years had to be followed by calm good government.

If Labour can at the next election persuade the voters that it is Boris Johnson who was “fucking hopeless” in keeping Covid under control, that’s a much bigger prize than giving Dominic Cummings the scalp of the health secretary. The party needs big answers on big issues like childcare, social care and life chances too. But Starmer at least has his eyes on the real target.