Johnson v Cummings: victor still uncertain in test of honesty

The Guardian - Tue Jan 18 14:35

It is perhaps a testament to current UK politics that the survival of a prime minister could come down to a test of honesty between two famously slippery individuals. But while Dominic Cummings very clearly wants to bring down Boris Johnson, it does not necessarily mean he is making things up – at least not always.

In an addendum to an earlier post on his Substack blog on Monday, Cummings argued that Johnson’s defence of why he attended the “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 – he believed it was a work meeting – was a lie.

Martin Reynolds, the senior No 10 aide who sent the invitation, had been warned the event would break Covid rules, and it was inconceivable Johnson would not have known of the exchanges, Cummings wrote.

“There are many other photos of parties after I left yet to appear,” Cummings ended, ominously. “I’ll say more when SG’s [Sue Gray’s] report is published.”

In normal times, such allegations from a former chief aide would seem career ending for a prime minister. But Team Johnson will know two things: that Cummings is not renowned as a reliable witness; and that he has a track record of promising evidence that never materialises.

For most voters, if they have heard of Cummings at all, it will be for his own lockdown breaking antics in spring 2020, notably his much-mocked “eyesight test” excuse for a family day trip to Barnard Castle.

Cummings did eventually concede he had not initially told the whole truth about his travels, arguing this had been because he had decamped with his wife and son from London to Durham for security reasons, something he had not been able to disclose at the time.

Similarly, in a marathon, barnstorming performance before a Covid inquiry last May, Cummings promised MPs he would provide evidence to back up claims about misdeeds by former health secretary Matt Hancock and others, but never did.

As ever with Cummings, what he says and his reasons for saying it are often complex, rolled up in a nest of vested interests, ancient grudges and a showman’s instinct for feeding the public just enough to keep them interested.

Many of Cummings’ utterances bring in mind the supposed comment of the 19th-century Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich when told about the death of his equally wily French counterpart Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand: “What did he mean by that?”

To take one example, while Cummings has been unequivocal about the social nature of the 20 May gathering, he is equally adamant that a similar event in the No 10 garden five days earlier was a work meeting. The difference? Unlike on 20 May, Cummings attended the 15 May event – and was pictured there, sitting within arm’s reach of a wine bottle and cheeseboard.

Similarly, in his latest blogpost Cummings took the time to reject the idea there was a party at No 10 on 27 November 2020, despite eyewitnesses describing it. One reason could be because it is believed to have been a leaving event for Cleo Watson, a former aide to Cummings, to whom he is close.

It is notable too the way Cummings appears to drip-feed information via tweets linked to his Substack blog, where most pieces are behind a £10monthly paywall.

But there is one thing that should worry Johnson: when it comes to information about Downing Street parties, Cummings’ claims have, thus far, tended to be some of his more credible.

For example, the blogpost first setting out what he knew about the 20 May party was published on 7 January, three days before ITV obtained a copy of the crucial email from Reynolds inviting 100 or so Downing Street staff to “make the most of the lovely weather” with drink in the garden.

Pretty much all of what Cummings set out on 7 January, in some detail, has been corroborated with other evidence, and from different sources.

In his latest update, Cummings could not have been more clear: Johnson lied to parliament by saying he had never been aware of attending any rule-breaking parties, and this can be proved. As ever with this most elusive of narrators, only time will tell if he really means it.