Three days later, we’re all in a better position to see Dominic Cummings ’fireworks castle – which of his rockets lit up the landscape, which were damp eskimos, and which smoked in the grass, suddenly ready to explode.
Maybe there isn’t that much difference between the first and the second. A firework can cast a dramatic light on its surroundings, but it goes as fast as it arrived, leaving the world lit up unchanged.
Cummings’s display was long, dazzling, and relentless, but the central message of his fiery lyrics seemed simple enough. The British government in general is “terribly shitty”. Under this administration and Boris Johnson, we were and are “absolutely done.” (The first two descriptions are interchangeable.) And Matt Hancock is a “serial liar,” so he repeatedly violates the Ministerial Code.
For a moment we do not believe that life is so simple: if it were so, the UK would have no success in deploying vaccines to counter the failure of hospital discharge. But let’s try a thought experiment and assume for a while that Cummings was right. What’s next?
If the British government is really “terribly shitty”, turning it into gold, or at least making it useful, is a long-term project that involves a better-functioning Parliament, a reformed public service, more control. local, stronger civic institutions, better media, a change in skills culture, and perhaps new political parties.
What could only turn it into a company in the medium term would be a first-rate government. But if Cummings is right, we are not – and we are “absolutely f * cked” under this administration. In addition, Johnson has a majority of eighty and the odds of Conservative MPs coming off before the next election, though never negligible, are long. As much as Cummings wants Rishi Sunak to be prime minister.
Cummings ’testimony told us nothing of the Prime Minister’s meaning that we didn’t know before. Which leaves us with Hancock.
On the one hand, Johnson evidently confronted his health secretary about nursing home deaths last year; on the other, it’s hard to see why anyone in government, including Cummings himself, might have believed that there was the ability to test Covid from the start on everyone who had returned from hospitals. So why would Hancock have given it? If you had it, why believe it?
Cummings told the select committee hearing that “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to test before they returned to nursing homes.” Do your own words point to the explanation? Did Hancock mean that people would be tested when capacity was available later, rather than when not? This is certainly the most natural explanation.
Anyway, this is where Parliament and the Commons come in, though less on the floor of the same chamber than in the committee rooms of Portcullis House.
The Hancock Commons statement the day after Cummings ‘testimony recalled that the chamber is rarely fatal to the ministers’ careers. This is because it is essentially a theater, not a courtroom (as Keir Starmer is discovering). Questions tend to tribune. So do the line ministers. The bankers of his party roar at them, regardless of the merits of the case and sometimes those of the minister.
This stance is almost unknown to select committees, but the joint presidency that the health secretary will question drastically reduces the likelihood in this case.
Because neither Greg Clark, the chair of the Science and Technology Committee, nor Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the Health Select Committee, are (or have ever been) likely to follow the extravagant footsteps of, say, the presidency of Keith Vaz of Internal Affairs.
These two experienced MPs, both cabinet members, brought moderation and incision to Cummings ’interrogations. Covid’s investigation of their joint committee overlaps with the official one: both will look for “lessons learned”.
But the former has an advantage over the latter (since the official investigation has not yet been established, let alone sat down). And it explicitly covers “the impact on the social care sector.”
Maybe Cummings is right and lawmakers can do little in the short term to cure our whole system of being “terribly shitty”. But if he’s wrong, they have a chance to get started, taking a synoptic view of Covid’s handling, learning lessons, and recommending changes.
And again, these would mean that you have to spend for these processes. But if not, the Government will act on the advice given and at the very least we have a chance to be in a better place when the next unexpected event happens.
In any case, Parliament, in the form of a Hunt and Clark committee, will play a decisive role in determining the future of Hancock and, by extension, the government.
His next tests and this week’s Cummings are part of the story of the rebirth of select committees, which makes Parliament stand out before the investigation.
As things stand, the Cummings fireworks that explode and splash the most are his claims about the health secretary, which have also dragged Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary, into the fight. Unless he refuses, they will burn down his house.
Neither Clark, fired by Johnson, nor Hunt, defeated by Johnson, will want to open up to accusations that want to resolve old inter-conservative results.
But committee sources tell ConHome that since Cummings has complained about Hancock during his proceedings, the committee will be forced to try to get to the bottom of it.
When asked if the committee had a right to see acts, documents and recordings that could prove the allegations in one way or another, we were told that this is a “constitutional gray area”. (Cummings has said he will deliver material he owns).
Thus, while the committee has no mandate to directly prosecute the health secretary over whether or not it violates the ministerial code, it nevertheless has one to look for “lessons learned”. If this raises the question of what he did and what he did not commit to, so be it.
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