Dominic and Gordon: Chaos and Sideshow
Dominic Cummings tirade leaves Matt Hancock’s career in balance and exposes the utter shambles at the very heart of the British government, but Labour’s response is a mixture of silence and the Brownhog Day fantasy.
Watching our new national hero (checks notes) Dominic Cummings spill the beans about the chaos and carnage of the regime of which he was at the very heart is a sort of mesmerising display in dysfunctionality. In the grotesque pantomime that is British politics plumes of outrage shoot forth from media outlets each week as the scribes and pundits leak out their patrons messages. As the boldly reformed and re-booted svengali made the journey from Devil to National Treasure he spewed out accusations over hours of testimony: that the PM had said: “I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”; and that Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill had said on March 12, “Prime Minister, you should go on TV tomorrow ad explain to people the herd immunity and that it’s like the old chicken pox parties – we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September”.
The scatter-gun of accusations was wide though fire was aimed especially at Boris Johnson, Carrie Symonds and Matt Hancock.
Mr Cummings accused the Health Secretary of “criminal, disgraceful” interference with the Test and Trace scheme to meet a “stupid” testing target of 100,000 per day. Mr Cummings told MPs: “In my opinion, disastrously, [Matt Hancock] had made – while the PM was on his near deathbed – this pledge to do 100,000 [tests a day] by the end of April.
“This was an incredibly stupid thing to do because we already that goal internally.”
When he returned to work after having Covid himself, Mr Cummings said he started receiving calls from people who said: “Hancock is interfering with the building of the Test and Trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month”.
He added: “In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone. That itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’.
“It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”
At one point he described No 10 simultaneously dealing with a media story about Carrie Symond’s dog and the possibility of the USA bombing Iraq. At the point where Cummings was citing Spider-Man memes we had toppled headlong into farce. If you think Britain looks like a Disaster Movie from the outside, the view is far scarier from the inside.
The whole impression of the Conservative government is one that is riddled not just with incompetence and misrule but one that inhabits a moral void.
How did we get here?
It’s worth remembering that in May 2019 the Conservative Party’s performance in the local and European elections suggested it was on course not so much for defeat, but total extinction. As Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman: “Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Cummings in the same spirit that Conservative MPs turned to him: desperation. In the end, even those who had sworn repeatedly that they would do everything possible to prevent Johnson from becoming prime minister fell in behind his leadership bid. They did so because they believed that he was their only route out of the party’s electoral and political mess.”
And, amazingly given the “total and utter chaos” described by Cummings, it’s worked. Simultaneously as the full extent of the shambolic Johnson administration comes into daylight his polling goes up! Weekly as the scale of the carnage is revealed Labour falls down the opinion polls with Keir Starmer falling further into oblivion.
The British government was installed to save the Conservatives from the disaster of Theresa May, proving Marx right once again with his vision that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
Incredibly Johnson is ascendant, like a clown in a morgue.
As Andy Beckett writes: “British politics feels more dominated by one party than at any time since New Labour’s peak years almost a quarter of a century ago. Like Tony Blair, Boris Johnson seems to be leading a breakout from his party’s usual ideological and territorial zones, into a wider political space where a British prime minister can enjoy rare freedom of action and their party can shake off restrictive old associations.”
How does Labour respond?
But Gordon Brown, who operates not so much as ‘Labour’ but as his own personal brand, in his own personal fiefdom, and with his own personal media entourage, popped up launching a ‘new’ “campaign to save the Union”. Yes, Brown who claims to be both a socialist and a democrat’s response to a Scottish parliamentary elections with record voter turnout at which pro-independence parties explicitly committed to #indyref2 won a majority of Holyrood seats is to hold secret meetings with Prince William about how to suppress a referendum. Channel 4’s reporter Anja Popp and Krishnan Guru-Murthy claimed that Kensington Palace stopped them filming:
“Kensington Palace have said we were stopped from airing the footage we filmed of Mr Brown in the grounds of Holyrood Palace – not because of sensitivities – but because they claim #C4News was trespassing. Our team were in public place outside gates.”
Brown launched his Our Scottish Future thinktank in the wake of the SNP’s victory in the Scottish Parliament election earlier this month. It has been described as a “campaigning movement” that will seek to appeal to “middle Scotland” – those who are not already entrenched in their support for or opposition to independence.
“Our Scottish Future” is an odd but carefully crafted entity. With Starmer circling the void and Anas Sarwar remaining pleasant but ineffectual Brown has carved out this gig for himself. It’s a mix of New Labour-speak talking about standing “for “middle Scotland” – the “third Scotland which stands in between hardline nationalism on the one hand, and muscular Unionism on the other” and revived Devo-Max chat: “Our Scottish Future is here to advance the patriotic, progressive and positive case for Scotland as part of our wider family of UK nations … “We believe the thousands of Scots do not want to be told we are too weak or too poor to become independent.”
Yet if Brown’s pet project has to have any impact it has to have some vehicle for agency. It argues: “Our Scottish Future intends to base our new case on a vision for a renewed Union, built on the foundations of a new Constitution, which tackles the growing sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with the centre of power.” But who will deliver such a thing? In the wake of the most disastrous mishandling of the public’s health at our most dire time of need, the Labour Party look further from power than at any time in my lifetime. In this context Our Scottish Future looks more like a vanity project to keep Gordon Brown and his associates busy than a serious campaign. He may be able to host secret meetings with the heir to the throne but its difficult to see how Our Scottish Future has much resonance beyond its small circle of hangers-on and those that still venerate Mr Brown.
All of this has been going on for a while. In 2019 I wrote about Brown’s appearance at the Book Festival:
“Gordon Brown has been weaponised against independence but keeps misfiring. He’s being weaponised and used but he’s also trying to re-write his role in history and retrofit and resurrect his career. The Edinburgh Book Festival is a bastion of vanilla centrism and provides a regular gig for a slew of retired Labour politicians. The “world’s greatest platform for creative freedom” (really) this year hosted Gordon Brown (‘his unique perspective on our tumultuous times’), Alan Johnson (‘witty memoirs’) and Roy Hattersley (‘The Labour Party’s Future‘). Most of these people are harmless, but Brown’s latest intervention is a calculated one supported by puff pieces in the Scotsman and the Telegraph and accompanying articles (like this by Jim Gallagher in The Times and this by Euan McColm.)”
Gallagher is now on the board of Our Scottish Future.
The entire framework of the Brown outlook is to assume that some parts of the Union are inherently economically bankrupt and require structural support from other wealthier parts. How or why this is so is never questioned or explained. This is just the natural order of things and that being so, the Union is therefore essential. There is a logic to it even if it is weirdly backward and self-defeating, completely lacking in ambition or vision and cloaked in a uniquely British cloth of cultural self-hatred.
Brown’s vision is dependent on a wholesale Britain-wide constitutional set of reforms that just won’t happen. As England continues to increase its support for Johnson’s regime – even in the face if Cummings revelations – what possible hope is there for democratic reform? Britain is dysfunctional and irredeemable.
Cummings and Brown are very different characters but both are finding it difficult to leave the scene. Cummings is so obviously driven by a drive for bitter revenge and he seems oblivious to his own central casting in the appalling chaos he describes. Brown is an unelected private individual, a man who has no formal role in British politics and has no vehicle for change other than the media platform he is regularly gifted. While Cummings describes the abject disaster of British governance in pandemic, Brown displays the paucity of the forces gearing up to, once again, ‘save the union’.