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This has been a week of drama for Westminster as Dominic Cummings delivered a broadside against the prime minister and the ‘current’ (but for how long?) health secretary during his appearance before the health and science and technology committees. In this week's blog, we delve further into some of the inflammatory claims made by Dominic Cummings and the potential ramifications these allegations could have for both Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock. We also take a look at the Batley and Spen by-election, and assess what impact the loss of the seat could have for Labour and Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Dominic delivers damnation

“Tens of thousands of people died, who didn't need to die,” that line for one, is enough to get people’s tongues wagging, but Cummings didn’t stop there. During a mammoth seven-hour joint session of the commons health and social care, and science and technology committees, Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to the prime minister, made a series of jaw-dropping allegations against the prime minister and UK Government. In perhaps the most high profile political fallout in recent times, we explore some of the key areas of Cummings’ response during the joint committee session.

During the evidence session, Cummings made a number of key claims that the government was not on a "war footing" when the virus emerged last year. However, it’s clear that the relationship between Johnson and Cummings has completely broken down during the pandemic, and this was evident when Cummings stated that he “fundamentally” regarded Johnson as being “unfit for the job”. This begs the question as to why Cummings served the prime minister for so long. However, Cummings claims that he served in order to create a “structure” around him to stop “bad decisions”.

Johnson said on Thursday that the "commentary" didn't “bear any relation to reality”. What is clear is that the feud between the two is deeply personal, and it’s most likely that the truth lies somewhere in between the both of them.

Cummings didn’t just focus on the prime minster. Matt Hancock was served even harsher criticism. Cummings claimed that the health secretary “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things”. Some of the sensational claims made against Hancock included him holding back coronavirus tests and using chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Whitty as a "shield" for government failings during Downing Street news conferences.

However, perhaps most controversial was the claim that Matt Hancock lied during meetings held in Downing Street in relation to testing elderly people before they were discharged from hospital into care homes, at the start of the pandemic. The transfer of around 25,000 untested patients is believed to have contributed to almost 20,000 deaths from coronavirus in care homes in England and Wales last year. Matt Hancock’s spokesman came out unequivocally rejecting the claims made against him. The government at the time carried the narrative that they had placed a “shield” around care homes and Matt Hancock during his parliamentary statement on Thursday, said: “These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.” However, in signs that this will be no flash in the pan for Hancock, on BBC Question Time last night, Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, said it was “absolute rubbish” that care homes had been ‘shielded’. To add to Hancock’s woes, Conservative MP Dan Poulter, who sits on the APPG on coronavirus said in a statement last night that there was a strong case for an immediate probe into COVID-related deaths in care homes. It remains to be seen as to whether the allegations by Cummings could be an existential threat for him, but it seems unlikely with the PM expressing "full confidence" in the Health Secretary today. According to the BBC, when Hancock was campaigning in the local elections in his constituency, sources claimed he was mobbed with people thanking him and according to Andrew Sinclair, BBC East political correspondent, he was unable to find anyone in the town centre who felt Hancock should resign as health secretary at the time. It remains to be seen if this support remains following these claims.

Although the assertions made by Cummings have been damming, there remains a clear feeling of mistrust from the public towards Cummings due to the Barnard Castle saga last year. In addition, there remain some grounds to say that the public are sympathetic towards the vast challenges that the government has had to face during the pandemic. This can be seen with Politico’s polling suggesting that the Conservatives are 11 points ahead of Labour. The results from the local elections earlier in the month have shown that the public is supportive of the government but equally, this could quickly change given the rapid rise of the Indian COVID variant. However, it is clear that the vaccine rollout and its success is the government’s trump card and this is likely to continue to form a key part of the government’s messaging against this saga. It remains to be seen if the prime minister and health secretary will be harmed from this, but what it is clear is that Cummings has only just started his political game of chess.

More bad news for Labour?

The local elections saw large gains for the Conservative party with a victory for the party in the Hartlepool by-election. The local elections resulted in further infighting in the Labour party as Starmer reshuffled his top team with Anneliese Dodds effectively being demoted to party chair from shadow chancellor. Starmer oversaw an ill-fated attempt to remove Angela Rayner as party chair backfire, leading to her promotion to shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work. Just when Starmer thought he could dust himself off, it was announced this week that the Batley and Spen by-election will be held on 1 July as previous MP Tracy Brabin has stood down due to being elected as West Yorkshire’s mayor. The West Yorkshire constituency was previously held by Jo Cox who was murdered by a right-wing extremist. The seat currently has a small Labour majority of 3,525 and there are a number of factors that are working against Labour such as the national polls and the high Brexit vote in the seat. To further add to Labour problems, former Labour MP George Galloway announced yesterday he would stand in the by-election and in an announcement video said: “I’m standing against Keir Starmer. If Starmer loses this by-election it’s curtains”. Labour is worried that Galloway will split the vote, in the wake of the latest Israel/Palestine violence, as the seat has a large Muslim population. If the seat is won by the Tories in a convincing fashion, then there could be further rumblings of a leadership challenge on the horizon with Diane Abbott having recently spoken in favour of this. Labour’s poor election results in May and the subsequent infighting has shown how perilous the situation is for the party, as it stumbles along trying to establish an identity which can be pitched to the public. What is certain is that the by-election could not have come at a worse time for the party.

Look ahead

The next few weeks are shaping up to be interesting, with 21 June(the date where all restrictions are set to end) in the spotlight. Questions over whether the loosening of restrictions will go ahead due to the increasing prevalence of the Indian variant continue to preoccupy decision-makers. The UK is also set to hold the G7 summit on 11-13 June in Cornwall and the UK government will no doubt use the summit as an opportunity to showcase its successes with the vaccine rollout. However, the Devonshire and Cornwall police are preparing for more than 30 groups planning protests, marches and demonstrations during the summit. Whether the protest groups and protesters will cause headlines and headaches for the prime minister remains to be seen, but it is certainly one to keep a close eye on.

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