Dominic Cummings: is my enemy’s enemy my friend?

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It’s the classic logic riddle: You are at a fork in a road on the border of two lands. Two guides stand guard at the fork; one always tells the truth, the other always lies. They know that one way leads to a land of comfort and safety, the other to danger and death. You have to choose a road to take and can only ask one question of one of the guides. Who will tell you the truth? How can you know?

That’s the question many of us were left asking ourselves after ex-super-aide, Dominic Cummings, gave an exclusive interview to the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.

Sceptics are right to be wary of Dominic Cummings bearing gifts in the form of damaging revelations against his old boss. Anonymous sources at the FT claimed that, back in 2016, Cummings came in to present them his strategy to win the referendum and, when he’d finished, one stunned journalist asked: “So you’re just going to lie, then?”

We must all ask ourselves, can we ever trust a liar?

The interview is still available on BBC Sounds and has been divided into three bite-sized topics: the government’s (mis)handling of the Covid-19 pandemic; Brexit; and the balance of power. Now that the sensation has died down, it is worth taking another cold hard look at it.

PART I: the pandemic

Part I’s teaser is very powerful: “And there I was, with the Cabinet Room like summer 1914,” Cummings says, confirming what those of us who have felt like lions led by donkeys have long suspected. However, beware confirmation bias!

10m 11 s — Cummings said the decision to abandon ‘herd immunity’ was made on 14 March. This statement supports the fact that herd immunity was official government policy, which you’d think would be undeniable in the face of pronouncements made by Johnson, Vallance and various ministers; but here we are, with our government in denial. It is, of course, absolute madness to attempt to achieve herd immunity from a lethal virus without a vaccine, and there wasn’t one on the horizon in March 2020.

11m 16s — “The PM bounced around…” Cummings gave greater credence to the impression that Johnson is indecisive, lacking leadership and vision, and the worst possible person to be in charge of a pandemic.

12m 39s — The normal thing on a Wednesday evening is for the PM to go to see the Queen for their weekly meeting and, despite people in Downing Street being off work due to having contracted Covid-19, Johnson wanted to go. “Sod this. I’m going to see her,” said Johnson. Number 10 strenuously deny this. Of course they do. But then they’re in the camp of the known liar, so nothing they say can be taken seriously. The incident casts Cummings in a heroic light, but it is entirely credible that Johnson was so caught up in his own hubris that he didn’t give a second thought to the possibility of infecting the Queen and killing her.

16m 40s — And now we come to the whole Durham/Barnard Castle debacle, and the ludicrous claim that Cummings went north for any reason other than that he wanted to. Here’s an admission that the government-led and Tory MP-backed cover-up was all a lie. So much for the deeply offensive assertion that in breaking lockdown because he, allegedly, couldn’t find childcare in the world-leading metropolis of London, Cummings “did what any father would do…” — a fabulation that pushed so many of us from mild annoyance to volcanic rage.

His latest story is that none of that was true, and that he went north for security reasons, but that he couldn’t tell us that at the time. Except he did tell us that at the time. Repeatedly. The Telegraph even reported that Scotland Yard had given him security advice on 27 May, 2020, after protestors massed outside his home. Why is he still lying? And why does Kuenssberg continue the myth that he was going to his father’s farm and fail to point out that technically he was going to his second home, since he owns the cottage on the farm?

29m 09s — “We all know that, for a whole bunch of reasons, the government delayed things, and that killed thousands of people. We cannot make the same mistake again.” This is what Cummings claims he was telling Number 10, precisely at the moment Johnson was going full steam ahead with making the same mistake again.

But let’s just pause a moment. This reveals that Number 10 know damn well their mistakes led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, but instead of doing the right thing – submitting to scrutiny, admitting mistakes, apologising, learning the lessons, holding an enquiry and possibly even resigning in some cases – we get the patronising “we did all that we could” narrative.

29m 45s — Confirmation that Johnson did not call a circuit breaker when the scientists advised him to do so in October 2020, for political reasons and for political reasons alone. Cummings claims there were three factors leading to Johnson’s inaction, which led to the avoidable deaths of thousands:

  • The PM could not bring himself to admit Keir Starmer was right.
  • “Tory MPs similar to the ones on Brexit had lost their minds and were saying all sorts of fake news on Covid.” That’s the party within the party Cummings is referring to —the ironically named European Research Group (ERG).
  • Johnson’s real boss, The Telegraph, opposed it.

From this, Kuenssberg latched on to The Telegraph remark, but surely what is most at issue here is that Johnson put his personal pride before the lives of thousands of our loved ones?

33m 24s — “He [Boris Johnson] put his own political interests ahead of people’s lives, for sure.” Devastating.

PART II: Brexit

All Cummings did in this section was re-hash referendum arguments. Not only is he completely unrepentant about his lies and the harm they have caused, but like Johnson, he refuses to admit that the disinformation he spread even was a lie.

0m 28s — “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Brexit was a mistake and that history will prove that.” Very big of you, Dominic.

To Kuenssberg’s credit, she did press him on the £350 million for the NHS lie, but he said the point of it was to drive Remain crazy and to park the argument in the cul-de-sac of arguing over the number.

Cummings is right that Remain’s campaign was lousy. Remain should have pointed out that the amount paid to the EU was less than one per cent of the public sector budget and, besides the rebate, we received roughly £10 in benefits for every £1 we paid in. Now, we’re no longer paying the £8.7 billion a year, but access to the single market is costing us even more and we’ve lost most of the benefits. Sounds like a bum deal to me.

Turkey was another topic where Cummings and Kuenssberg were at odds. Cummings claimed, unconvincingly, to be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. An analysis of the ‘Turkey’ section of the crude and nasty campaign leaflet VoteLeave sent to every household blows that claim out of the water. They did not disclose the infinitesimally tiny probability of Turkey ever completing the accession process for joining the EU, given that it has completed one chapter in 30 years and there are another 33 to go. Nor did they mention geo-politics: the situation in Cyprus, but also the position many other EU countries have taken on Armenian genocide, especially France. Without an apology and reparations for the genocide, Turkey would never be allowed to join, and that apology is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.

Cummings also repeated the oft-debunked zombie lie that the UK could not have forged ahead with its vaccine programme if we had still been in the EU. Technically, we still were in the EU and, as the head of the MHRA Dr June Raines so patiently explained, we approved our vaccine programme early in December 2020, under EU law. We used an emergency clause, prioritising speed over safety because we had way more deaths per million than any other European country. The EU chose the normal process, prioritising safety over speed, because a higher proportion of its population were vaccine-sceptic and had to be convinced that it was safe. The EU is rapidly catching up with the UK in terms of the percentage of population double-jabbed, expecting to draw level in the first week of August, and it has also shipped hundreds of millions of doses to the rest of the world (including the UK).

The missed open goal in this section was Cummings’ preposterous claim that VoteLeave were the nice guys — “we didn’t get into that gang mentality,” he boasted. Remember Cambridge Analytica? Remember VoteLeave illegally harvesting data through a dumb football game that promised (and never delivered) a £50 million pay-off?

After all that data was collected it was cross-referenced with personal information from other sources (demographics, income, what you spend your money on, etc) and ‘likes’ on social media. From this, profiles of individual voters were built. In particular, they targeted the undecideds. They gradually reeled them in with posts aligned to their interests, amping up the outrage with fake stories, seeding radical Brexit ideas into their posts here and there, becoming bolder with every item.

Not for nothing is this method called ‘psy-ops’. It’s a military tactic to ‘win hearts and minds’. It is akin to the method paedophiles use to groom young children, or jihadis use to recruit and radicalise disaffected youth on social media. You bet it’s manipulative.

Of course, nobody wants to admit it happened to them, but we are all susceptible to it. Quite literally, it could happen to anyone. The bad news is, because the ideas have been paired with an emotional response, they become deep-rooted — psy-ops literally changes neural pathways in your brain, which is why they are so hard to reverse. What is shocking is that none of this is against the law. While commercial advertising is heavily controlled, political communications are not.

How dare Dominic Cummings pretend he was the good guy, and that VoteLeave were intellectual saints, after the Cambridge Analytica debacle, which has manufactured divisions in society that will take years to undo?

PART III: the balance of power

In the teaser to this section, Kuenssberg asks incredulously: “Within days of the election you were discussing getting rid of him [Boris Johnson]?” Yep. That’s about the long and the short of it.

0m 27s — “He [Boris Johnson] doesn’t have a plan; he doesn’t know how to be prime minister, and we’d only got him in there because we had to solve a certain problem [Brexit and Corbyn], not because we thought he was the right person to be running the country.” Gee, thanks for that, Dominic.

26m 21s — “The prime minister and some of the people around him have decided to just say black is white, and say: ‘That never happened.’ And the people who like me know what happened have a duty to speak out and tell people the truth.”

“If we don’t learn, history tells us the same disasters will happen again.”

Cummings is playing us

So, has Cummings become the truthful guide? Can he be believed? Should we trust him now? In a word, no. A liar does not have to lie all the time. Indeed, to reel people in, they wrap their lies in truth.

Nothing Cummings said about Johnson should shock us, as the gist of it has been reported elsewhere, the PM gets caught out telling one lie or another almost every week, and we have all seen and heard him with our own eyes and ears. The only thing that is shocking is that Cummings has apparently joined the chorus of Johnson’s critics, revealed some specific phrases the PM has used, and appears to have the WhatsApp messages to back it up. “Let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” springs to mind.

Since the interview with Kuenssberg, Cummings has been active on Twitter, re-writing history just as he did in Number 10’s rose garden last year, claiming he had made predictions that later turned out to be post-dated edits to his blog. There is something afoot and things may not be as they appear. The master of disinformation probably has a few more malign tricks up his sleeve to unleash on the British public.

He may be our enemy’s enemy, but be very wary of adopting this particular enemy of our common enemy as your friend.