‘Lions led by Donkeys.’ Cummings Unloads on Johnson Government
LONDON — He suggested that a doctor inject him with the coronavirus live on television to play down the dangers to a nervous public. He modeled himself after the small-town mayor in the movie “Jaws,” who ignored warnings to close the beaches even though there was a marauding shark offshore. As the pandemic closed in on Britain, he was distracted by an unflattering story about his fiancée and her dog.
That was the portrait of Prime Minister Boris Johnson painted by his disaffected former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in parliamentary testimony on Wednesday. While Mr. Johnson flatly rejected several of the assertions in his own appearance in Parliament on Wednesday, they nevertheless landed with a thud in a country still struggling to understand how the early days of the pandemic were botched so badly.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” said Mr. Cummings, the political strategist who masterminded Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union and engineered Mr. Johnson’s rise to power before falling out bitterly with his boss and emerging as a self-styled whistle-blower.
In more than seven hours of testimony that veered from the clinically technical to the ripely personal, Mr. Cummings described a government paralyzed by chaos, confusion and incompetence, which he said crippled Britain’s handling of the pandemic and contributed to tens of thousands of needless deaths.
It was a riveting tableau, one with few precedents in British politics: an unelected aide who had been arguably the nation’s second-most powerful man, offering an unfiltered look at the inner workings of the British government as it confronted the greatest national emergency since World War II.
Until Mr. Johnson fired him last November, Mr. Cummings was at the heart of 10 Downing Street, riding herd on a bureaucracy he viewed as balky and advising a prime minister he described as so erratic that he was like a shopping cart “smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.”
Mr. Johnson, he said, initially dismissed the pandemic as a “scare story,” likening it to the swine flu. He was advised by a health secretary, Matt Hancock, whom Mr. Cummings accused of lying repeatedly, being unworthy of the health care workers he directed and presiding over the deadly transfer of elderly patients from hospitals to nursing homes, many of them carrying the virus.
“The problem in this crisis was very much lions led by donkeys, over and over again,” said Mr. Cummings, who faced off against lawmakers in his signature disheveled style, without jacket or tie, his white shirt rumpled, sleeves rolled up.
Mr. Cummings, 49, did not let himself off the hook. He admitted he had not been open about the reasons for a much-criticized road trip he made with his family that breached lockdown rules, saying he had fled London because of threats against his family. And he apologized for his failure to act sooner when he realized that Britain’s delay in imposing a lockdown last March was courting disaster.
“It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan,” Mr. Cummings said. “I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”
It was an uncharacteristic admission from a man known for his self-confidence. And it was not the only such concession in an appearance that seemed calculated to soften Mr. Cummings’ image as an all-knowing Svengali, whose ambition was nothing less than to revolutionize Britain’s hallowed civil service.
Mr. Cummings said he was not qualified to have held such a powerful position. He said he was not fluent enough in math and science to engage constructively with top scientists. And he said that he lost every major debate over reforming the bureaucracy. By September, he said, when Mr. Johnson was resisting a second lockdown, he should have threatened to quit to force his hand.
“If I had acted earlier,” Mr. Cummings said, “then lots of people might still be alive.”
But this was also an exercise in score-settling, and his scathing critiques of Mr. Johnson and other officials may linger longer than his attempts to refurbish his own image. Mr. Cummings said there was something wrong with a political system that produced Mr. Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, as the two contenders for prime minister in the 2019 election.
He was even more vitriolic about Mr. Hancock, who he said should have been fired for 15 to 20 reasons, from his dishonesty about the provision of protective equipment to derailing a national test-and-trace program so he could meet a political target of testing 100,000 people a day. Mr. Cummings said he told Mr. Johnson to dismiss Mr. Hancock, as did the then-cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.
Among the most damning failures, he said, was the decision to move patients from hospitals to nursing homes without testing them.
“Hancock told us that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes, what the hell happened?” he said. “Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”
A spokesman for Downing Street said on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson did not believe Mr. Hancock had lied to him.
There were glimpses of Mr. Cummings’ penchant for soaking up information. He spoke at length about the virtues of the response of East Asian countries, with their emphasis on testing, tracing and travel bans. To that extent, said public health experts, it was a useful exercise in learning lessons for future outbreaks.
“It didn’t reveal anything new, but instead validated what most experts suspected has occurred in No. 10,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “A complete systems failure driven by a prime minister who didn’t value the lives of his citizens.”
Mr. Cummings described Mr. Johnson’s Downing Street as a workplace riven by chaos and preoccupied with trivia. He recalled a particularly fraught day — March 12, 2020 — when he and other officials realized that the initial strategy of allowing the virus to rip through the population was going to lead to a crushing burden on hospitals and potentially more than 250,000 deaths.
As officials were prepping for a day of crisis meetings, he said, the Trump administration asked for British help in a bombing operation against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which necessitated a parallel set of national security meetings. On top of that, Mr. Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, was agitating for Downing Street to respond to a newspaper report about her and her dog.
The chaos, Mr. Cummings said, was like “a scene from ‘Independence Day,’ with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken.” Mr. Johnson’s preferred movie reference was “Jaws,” he said, because he saw it as an analogy to his reluctance to impose lockdowns. Even after he survived a near-death experience with Covid, Mr. Cummings said, Mr. Johnson remained a skeptic.
Mr. Cummings did not address one tantalizing question: whether Mr. Johnson had skipped Covid meetings to work on a long-delayed book about Shakespeare.
While Mr. Cummings accused Ms. Symonds of interfering with staff appointments in Downing Street, he said the reason for his ultimate departure in November was a breach not with her but with Mr. Johnson.
At its heart, Mr. Cummings’ testimony was about his poisoned relationship with his former boss. Relations between the two had deteriorated by July, he said, but “took a terrible dive after the lockdown in October.” By this point, Mr. Cummings said he regarded the prime minister “as unfit for the job” and was trying to create a structure around him to limit poor decision-making.
Mr. Cummings also confirmed that he had heard Mr. Johnson say he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third lockdown — comments reported by the BBC but denied by Downing Street.
Asked if Mr. Johnson was the right person to guide the country through the pandemic, Mr. Cummings responded simply: “No.”