PMQs: Starmer grills Johnson on Cummings’ allegation
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Prime Minister Johnson’s former chief adviser, Mr Cummings, has given evidence to a joint meeting of the Science and Technology Select Committee about the Government’s response to coronavirus. Earlier today, the political strategist made a series of extraordinary and potentially damaging claims, including accusing Mr Johnson of wanting to be injected with Covid live on television to reassure the public there was “nothing to be scared of”. Mr Cummings stressed that actions from ministers and officials during the crisis “fell disastrously short of the standards” expected.
He told MPs: “The view of various officials inside No 10 was if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone, ‘It’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’, that would not help…”
Meanwhile, Labour Leader Keir Starmer has used his weekly chance to question the Prime Minister to bring up some of these serious allegations.
Mr Johnson denied that his “inaction” led to “needless deaths” at the beginning of the pandemic, and in reference to Mr Cummings accusing him of failing to realise the severity of COVID-19, he said: “I don’t think anybody can accuse this Government of being complacent about the virus.”
It is not the first time Mr Cummings has been embroiled in a row with a Prime Minister, though.
In 2014, the political strategist, who had worked as an adviser to then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, accused “bumbling” former Prime Minister David Cameron of not being up to the job.
He claimed that above all, the former Tory leader lacked the “slightest sense of purpose” about what he wanted to achieve in Downing Street.
He also dismissed Ed Llewellyn, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, as a “classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant”.
Mr Gove distanced himself from Mr Cummings’ claims at the time.
However, the political maverick’s words did not sit well with Mr Cameron.
Speaking at a garden party hosted by Policy Exchange – a think tank co-founded by Mr Gove – a few days after, the former Prime Minister hit back at Mr Cummings.
Mr Cameron suggested there was now on a path from special adviser to “career psychopath” in what was interpreted as a pointed remark about Mr Gove’s former right-hand man.
In 2019, former Conservative MP and Attorney General Dominic Grieve also had some grievances with Mr Cummings.
The former Minister accused him of being a “Maoist right-winger”, who was “taking a sledgehammer” to the British constitution.
Mr Grieve, who led several attempts to block a no deal Brexit, hit out at the No 10 aide, who he claimed was “spreading disinformation” from Downing Street to divide anti-Brexit MPs.
He rubbished claims that the law which stopped no deal on October 31 – the Benn Act – had loopholes, and told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that Mr Cummings wanted to wreck the UK’s political system.
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He and other anti-Brexit MPs had just been accused of “foreign collusion” in a report by the Mail on Sunday.
The report claimed Mr Grieve, Tory Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Hilary Benn were in receipt of foreign funds and sought the help of EU advisers to write the legislation.
Mr Grieve said the report was completely untrue and that Mr Cummings could have been behind a “serious piece of defamation”.
He said: “This is a classic example of the sort of corruption of our political system that is now coming in at the hands of Mr Cummings.
“I do worry that the closer we have got to October 31 the more the present Prime Minister has departed from every conceivable Conservative principle in order to ratchet up the rhetoric, and he is now employing as his chief of staff a sort of Maoist right-winger, with a belief in destruction of politics which is so out of keeping with our party’s tradition as to be frankly astonishing.
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“What is this culture war on our constitutional traditions?”
He went on to claim the of Parliament was “an own goal of spectacular proportions” and Mr Cummings was using Brexit to attempt the “destruction of politics”.
Mr Grieve lost his seat in Buckinghamshire after running as an independent in December 2019.
The Tories held Beaconsfield after he was beaten by new Conservative candidate Joy Morrissey.
Despite the criticism received, Mr Cummings can arguably be credited for the Tory triumph in December 2019 and Brexit.
The No.1 talking point of Mr Johnson and the Tories through the six-week election campaign was “Get Brexit done”.
Mr Johnson cited it repeatedly.
As a result, when political focus groups were asked to shout out the first party slogan they remembered, people said: “Get Brexit done.”
The catchphrase resonated in the same way that “take back control” did in the 2016 EU referendum.
Mr Cummings effectively ran the Vote Leave campaign three years ago, by using data-driven campaigning to win over undecided voters, pushing a small number of key messages.
Drawing on his previous campaigns against the euro and a regional assembly for the north-east, Mr Cummings oversaw the group’s aggressive use of statistics and social media.
It was Mr Cummings who coined the catchphrase “Vote Leave, Take Control”.
The group’s initial legal name was “Vote Leave, Get Change” but Mr Cummings insisted on changing it as he had realised that “control” was a more seductive message.
One of his colleagues told the Financial Times in 2016: “He came to one meeting and said, ‘We’re going to push this’.”
The same type of language was used by Mr Cummings during his earlier crusade against the single currency.
In 2003, he had claimed that adopting the euro would be like “giving away control of our economy”.
His slogan was swallowed almost entirely by Mr Johnson in 2016.
In a TV debate during the referendum campaign, the Tory grandee used the words “take control” no fewer than seven times in his one-minute opening statement.
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