A self-serving witness can still give evidence that is both damning and true.
A year ago, Dominic Cummings gave a press conference from the garden of 10 Downing Street to explain why he, as the prime minister’s most powerful adviser, should be allowed to breach lockdown rules when ordinary citizens were confined to their homes. His explanation, involving the claim to have tested his eyesight by driving with his family in the car, was famously improbable.
That episode damages Mr Cummings’ credibility as a witness before a committee of MPs seeking to learn lessons from the government’s handling of the pandemic. No one who watched Wednesday’s testimony was left doubting that he intended to settle scores and divert blame away from himself. He apologised for mistakes that were made, but as a prelude to self-exculpation, even over that family trip to County Durham. His regret was not having acted sooner to contradict a prevailing government view last March that the virus should be allowed to run through the population, generating natural immunity. He had been right all along, and should have forced the prime minister to act, he said. Well he would, wouldn’t he, as Mandy Rice-Davies might have observed.
A self-serving motive does not render the whole account invalid. Much of it is corroborated by other sources and the evidence of what happened to the country. Even when it was clear that Britain was heading quickly towards catastrophe, the prime minister was either unwilling or psychologically unable to take the necessary action.
As the crisis unfolded, this fundamental flaw in Boris Johnson’s character resurfaced as the cause of confusion, delay and, by extension, unnecessary death. Mr Cummings reports that the prime minister likes “chaos” as a mode of government because it forces others to await his arbitration, thereby bolstering his power. That is consistent with other accounts of Mr Johnson’s modus operandi: maintaining a deliberately weak cabinet, contradicting himself, making false public statements, making policy commitments one day and U-turning the next, procrastinating while the options narrow. That temperamental inadequacy would be problematic under normal circumstances. During a pandemic, it has proved lethal.
Some of the worst failings of government were, no doubt, compounded by mediocrity and a lack of agility throughout Whitehall. Mr Cummings is right to raise the alarm about a civil contingencies apparatus that existed to cope with rare emergencies and failed to perform that one basic function when required. The threat of a pandemic had been known for years, yet the government found itself making up the plan as it went along.
For all the systemic unreadiness and alleged dishonesty of cabinet ministers, the central problem – the broken piece in the machine that escalated every hazard into a disaster – was the man whose job it was to lead. No country went into the pandemic fully prepared. All had to improvise responses and learn from evidence as it emerged. Mr Johnson failed to do that, not just at the start, but throughout last year.
Britain has suffered one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world not only because its organs of state were unready, but because its prime minister was unfit. Mr Cummings is not the most reliable narrator of events in which he played a crucial role. Yet the picture he paints of a prime minister lacking the judgment and character to navigate the crisis tallies with a Downing Street spectacle that the country witnessed last year, lurching from panic to complacency and back again – “a shopping trolley smashing between aisles.” Testimony from a man at the very heart of that disaster might well be skewed by vendetta, but it also contains frighteningly plausible insight into the way Britain is governed. The full picture will emerge only in time, but some judgments are already available based on known facts. “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” Mr Cummings said. Tragically, it was the truth.