The Prime Minister this week had to contend with something that would bring most people out in a cold sweat, as he saw screenshots of his old WhatsApp messages plastered across social media.
The messages, released in another instalment of Dominic Cummings’ magnum opus COVID Twitter thread showed his late night exchanges with the Prime Minister at the start of the pandemic, as they complained to each other about performance of the government machine and – in particular – of Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The messages made awkward reading for Hancock, who has been drawn into the firing line since Cummings marathon evidence session before the joint Health and Science Committee inquiry into COVID last month, in which Cummings accused him of lying over the testing of patients discharged into care homes. Hancock is described by the Prime Minister more than once in his messages as “hopeless” (to sanitise the unredacted language).
Despite Cummings’ undisguised loathing of the Health Secretary, it is not just Hancock who he has in his sight. His Twitter thread including a series of questions for the Prime Minister seeking to pin the blame on him for the consequences of keeping Hancock in place despite his apparent loss of faith in him. In stark terms, Cummings asks: “how many more people died as a result of your failure to remove him?” and accuses No.10 (and by extension the Prime Minister himself) of lying to Parliament by asserting that herd immunity was never the original plan, which Cummings insists that it was.
The publication of the messages will be seen by No.10 as further proof that Cummings’ attack on the Prime Minister as ‘unfit for the job’ at last month’s hearing really was just the opening salvo and that they can expect him to drip more and more messages and accounts of private conversations into the public domain.
Yet despite the serious claims he made before MPs, Cummings has so far failed to provide the Committees with the evidence he promised to. This has led Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Hancock’s predecessor, Jeremy Hunt to say: “It is not possible to stack up the most sensational revelations without evidence”. No.10 has also expressed full confidence in Hancock, pointing to the lack of evidence to support Cummings’ most damaging claims.
Evidence, of course, is what the public inquiry into the pandemic will be interested in. Into the vacuum that has been created by the year long gap between the inquiry being announced and it starting work next spring has – inevitably – spilled the politics of blame, as those involved look ahead to its possible conclusions.
Despite overwhelming public support for an inquiry into the pandemic, however, it is unlikely in itself to shift the public’s view on the government’s performance (something I wrote about earlier this year). Most voters have made their minds up one way or the other and are more interested – for now at least – in what they will and won’t be allowed to do after 19 July than what the Prime Minister thought privately about his Health Secretary fifteen months ago. More importantly, they also made their mind up about Dominic Cummings himself – and his trustworthiness – the week he came back down the A1 from Barnard Castle.
What could change that is the emergence of messages that go beyond the embarrassing and into the explosive. The Prime Minister has long had a tolerance for riding out embarrassing stories that far exceeds that of any of his predecessors and confounds his opponents. But even he will be shifting uncomfortably if he knows that yesterday’s messages are at the tamer end of the screenshots saved on Cummings’ iPhone.
On the evidence of the past few weeks, if that is the case then it won’t be long before we all see them on ours, too.