The briefing war between Boris Johnson and the man who was once his most influential adviser is raging on in the newspapers today.
Downing Street is engaged in what the Daily Mail describes as a “spectacular public war of words” with Dominic Cummings, the Brexit campaign architect who was booted out of his role as Johnson’s chief of staff late last year.
Some Tory insiders fear the maverick former aide has enough material to damage the prime minister.
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In the online blog post, Cummings insists that he did not leak texts between the PM and Sir James Dyson to the BBC; nor details about Johnson’s flat renovations; nor information about the government’s decision to implement a second lockdown last year, which was known in the media as the “chatty rat story” at the time.
“That this is by far the least inflammatory part of the blog will leave some questioning the wisdom of No. 10 going to war with Cummings over the issue,” says The Times.
In an “unprecedented and extraordinary attack” on Johnson, Cummings goes on to allege that his former boss tried to quash an inquiry into the real chatty rat because it implicated a friend of the PM’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, reports The Guardian. Cummings said: “I told him that this was ‘mad’ and totally unethical.”
He also describes alleged plans for donors to secretly pay for Johnson’s flat renovations as “foolish” and “possibly illegal”.
What is Cummings’ next move?
Cummings is due to give evidence on 26 May to a joint committee of MPs looking into the government’s response to the Covid pandemic. The former aide has promised to “cooperate fully” and says he is happy for No. 10 to publish every email he received during his time as chief adviser at Downing Street, from July 2019 to November 2020.
The Telegraph reports that “Downing Street insiders have no idea” about the content of the material that Cummings claims to have “and say they are ‘terrified’ about further revelations”.
Indeed, No. 10 aides “fear that Cummings has nothing to lose and has enough ‘kompromat’ on Johnson to damage him”, according to The Sunday Times, which quotes an unnamed Cummings ally as saying: “Dominic has copies of everything and knows where all the bodies are buried.”
The newspaper has claimed that the former aide is “preparing a dossier of evidence that will attempt to blame Boris Johnson personally for the tens of thousands of deaths during the second wave of the pandemic”. The cache reportedly includes audio recordings of key conversations.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has published claims by an anonymous source that Johnson told an October meeting: “No more f***ing lockdowns - let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” However, there is nothing to suggest the source was Cummings, and Downing Street has dismissed the reported comment as “just another lie”.
What else has No. 10 said?
A government official has suggested that Cummings is not in the clear over the “chatty rat” lockdown leak, saying: “The investigation is still live and it would be wrong to think we have landed on any one individual or, for that matter, completely exonerated anyone.”
Downing Street has also rubbished Cummings’ claims about the flat refurbishment plans. “At all times, the government and ministers have acted in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct and electoral law,” a spokesperson said.
Hammering home that message, Cabinet Office Minister Lord True told the House of Lords on Friday that “any costs of wider refurbishment in this year have been met by the prime minister personally”.
Will the row damage Johnson?
A “Conservative friend” told The Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman this weekend that “I think we are now looking at the end of Boris”.
However, Shipman points out that the PM “is a survivor” and that his numbers in opinion polls remain “buoyant”.
Patrick O’Flynn in The Telegraph agrees that the antics of Cummings and co. are “much more interesting to the political journalists who know them than to the vast majority of the population that does not”.
O’Flynn predicts that Johnson’s influential supporters will remain loyal while the PM is “getting the big calls right in the eyes of voters” - citing Brexit, the economy, “levelling up”, and “above all”, the vaccine rollout.
That said, O’Flynn adds, the PM should “cut out anything in his own approach to politics that could be deployed against him by his opponents” - because “when the general climate of opinion is less favourable towards him - and that day will surely come - this stuff could start to hurt”.
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