Sunday 25 April 2021

Johnson v Cummings, seconds out, round two

The Times, the organ of Murdoch's Saruman and Gove's Wormtongue, attempts an even-handed view of the Johnson/Cummings battle. They don't quite succeed as they describe Boris Johnson's struggles - the man who would be king but is merely cut out to be a slightly posher Rod Liddle.

Times article follows: read on for a tale of spies and inaccurately-hurled mud pies.

Guerrilla warfare: Johnson steels himself for final assault from Cummings

Even Boris Johnson's closest allies have compared the prime minister to one of Shakespeare's most tragic heroes: King Lear. After arguably one of his toughest weeks in Downing Street, Johnson suffered his greatest betrayal when his once loyal lieutenant, Dominic Cummings, eviscerated him in a 1,000-word blog post.

Those close to Johnson fear the treachery of his former chief adviser, accused of "systematic leaking", has pushed the prime minister over the edge. Just like Lear, the PM has been driven half mad.

In his post, Cummings denied Johnson's claims that he leaked details of the second lockdown and the prime minister's texts with the billionaire Brexiteer Sir James Dyson.

According to friends, Cummings had one aim in posting the missive: to pre-empt a stitch-up by the "establishment" that could land him in prison — an outcome he has privately feared since details emerged of irregular spending during the Brexit referendum.

However, its toxic effect has been to destabilise the prime minister and the government. Aides are only too conscious that Cummings has nothing to lose and believe he has enough "kompromat" to "destroy" Johnson when he gives evidence on Covid-19 to MPs on May 26.

They are especially concerned about emails in which the prime minister is allegedly dismissive about the potential death toll from Covid — or quoted as being so. Others believe Cummings has embarrassing details of his links to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai.

In contrast, Johnson feels he has only one secret weapon: Cummings's failure to deny that he leaked his texts with bin Salman over the proposed takeover of Newcastle United football club, which never went ahead. "He was waving round that omission like it was the big reveal," said a source who spoke to him last week. "Otherwise, I think that's all he has."

For months, Johnson had been enjoying his most stable spell in government, thanks to the successful vaccine rollout. Now a combination of Cummings, leaks and sleaze allegations threaten to engulf him.

One Downing Street insider said: "After the departure of his closest aides last year, the prime minister has become increasingly isolated and paranoid. He has become known in some circles as the King Lear prime minister and we all know how that ended up."

Last week after days of leaks, including the publication of private text messages between the prime minister and Dyson more than a year ago, Johnson finally "snapped".

"It was like death by a thousand cuts," said one Downing Street aide. "But the Dyson leak was the last straw."

In particular, Johnson has been concerned by the disclosure of details about the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat amid claims it was circuitously funded by a Tory donor.

The Electoral Commission is investigating. By Friday, the Cabinet Office had confirmed in a statement to parliament that Johnson would foot a residual bill of £58,000 himself. He has already used up the improvements allowance of £30,000 to which all new prime ministers are entitled for "structural work". The parliamentary move and decision to pay was clearly designed to draw a line under the matter.

"When stories about the flat first started emerging Boris was really ranting and raving about," said one insider. "He was clearly very rattled by it." Another source added: "He would often have what I would describe as a Lear-ish moment and rampaging around Downing Street demanding to know who was briefing against him." Last month, after the latest story on the redecoration of No 10, Johnson explicitly forbade aides in his leadership team from even speaking to Cummings.

A person who spoke to Johnson last week said the prime minister was "convinced" that his former chief adviser had declared war on him from the moment he left Downing Street in November.

Carrie Symonds, the PM's fiancée, is understood to have played a pivotal role in the ousting of Cummings and had been encouraging Johnson to take action.

On Thursday, the PM decided to finger Cummings for the leaks. It is suggested he may have briefed newspaper editors himself. It was a co-ordinated hit with the story appearing in three newspapers. The Daily Mail, which has been the outlet for most of the leaks, was left out.

Few aides in No 10 now believe Johnson made the right decision in launching the attack on Cummings, prompting Friday's incendiary riposte. It is understood that he overruled advisers who warned him that the move was "suicidal".

Some blame the recent departure of so many once-trusted aides for the PM's "error in judgement". He is without many of the people who stood by him throughout his first year and a half in office. Cummings, once loyal, is gone. So too is Lee Cain, once described as Johnson's right-hand-man. The PM has told friends that Cain has repeatedly tried to contact him but that he has ignored his texts.

Allegra Stratton has been elbowed out as press secretary by male aides and is now spokeswoman for the Cop26 climate change conference. Her planned regular live TV briefings have been scrapped.

Lord Udny-Lister, who has advised Johnson since his days as London mayor from 2008 onwards, has quit amid the lobbying scandal and is expected to join the private sector.

It is believed Cummings has embarrassing details of Johnson's links to Mohammed bin Salman It is believed Cummings has embarrassing details of Johnson's links to Mohammed bin Salman REUTERS No 10 aides are keen to contain the row with just days to go until the local elections. A Conservative Party Central Office source said: "There has not been an impact on polling as of yet but you never know when the mood can change."

The churn at No 10 is said to have left Johnson "vulnerable" and at the mercy of two relatively inexperienced operators: Simon Case, the 42-year-old cabinet secretary, and Dan Rosenfield, 44, his chief of staff. Neither man is deemed to have much political nous or Cummings's "willingness to get down in the mud and fight".

For months, Rosenfield has helped stabilise the No 10 operation and inject an apolitical professionalism in the building. But he is also seen by some as naive.

For instance, he was accused of imperilling his own job and the government's credibility after welcoming Ed Woodward, the chief executive of Manchester United, to No 10 ten days ago and appearing to offer support for the controversial European Super League.

Sources claim Rosenfield's conversations with Woodward emboldened the English clubs to back the scheme, heralding the biggest crisis in the game for decades. No 10 insists, however, that the Super League proposals were not discussed at the meeting, which was convened to discuss the safe return of fans and Covid passports for games. Sources accept that Woodward may have briefly met Johnson and left with the wrong impression that he was in favour of the proposal. Indeed within hours of the Super League plan being revealed, Johnson publicly opposed it.

Case is the subject of anger after quickly announcing a review into officials moonlighting in private sector jobs. His approach is seen to have made Udny-Lister's job untenable, with Johnson's consigliere having stayed on the payroll of two property firms while at No 10.

Johnson knows that Case is in shark-infested waters. On Monday the cabinet secretary will give evidence to MPs where he will no doubt be questioned about Cummings. One incendiary claim is that, after learning that it could implicate Henry Newman, a friend of Symonds, Johnson sought to shut down a previous inquiry into who leaked details of Britain's second lockdown.

Allies of Newman furiously denied Cummings's suggestion that he was the "chatty rat". They added that the leak inquiry was still active and dismissed Cummings's claim that he and Cain had been exonerated.

Despite his public displays of bravado, Cummings has long been haunted by a fear that he could end up in prison: either over irregular spending during the Brexit referendum or his conduct in government. Allies believe this prompted his "nuclear" reaction — in effect, an attempt to get on the front foot and publicise evidence of his innocence. But opponents believe Cummings may be right to fear sanctions.

They claim that MI5 has concluded that one person sent a WhatsApp message from the cabinet room just before 6pm on the day after the meeting last autumn where the new curbs in England were discussed. Six people were present: Johnson, Cummings, Cain, another political aide and two senior officials.

According to this account, Cummings was aggravated by Johnson's indecision and felt he had not been firing on all cylinders since his illness. He therefore decided to leak the news to bounce Johnson into it. MI5, it is claimed, has established that one person in the room had two SIM cards linked to them. That person, sources insist, was Cummings.

Last night, a government official said: "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."

The question for Johnson is what the unpredictable Cummings will do next. "This falling out was never going to end well," conceded one source.


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