On New Year’s Eve The Spectator dropped a very interesting story.
As many hospitals struggle to cope with a surge of Covid-19 patients, the most important judgement yet to be made about 2020 is how much difference it would have made had England been pre-emptively locked down in September.
This is not an academic question. Because there were two separate occasions in September when the prime minister’s political and scientific advisers urged him to impose tough national restrictions and suppress the incidence of the virus back to low levels.
It is well known that on 21 September the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a short ‘circuit-breaking’ lockdown.
But I have learned that within Downing Street, it was at the beginning of September that Boris Johnson was urged by officials and colleagues – led by his former adviser Dominic Cummings – to impose tough new controls on our behaviour.
I am told that Cummings, his ally Ben Warner and leading members of SAGE were in favour of ‘whacking it [the virus] early]’. According to a source they argued ‘you should do it now because it will save lives and minimise disruption’. But the prime minister and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak argued that ‘we can’t justify it now’, so it didn’t happen.
In early September, at a meeting in the Cabinet Room, Cummings and Warner presented data about how the virus would spread by the end of October without such suppressive measures. They believe they were proved right: ‘at the end of October, a meeting then replayed exactly what the data team had projected’, the source says.
It was at the end of October that the circuit breaking lockdown was finally ordered by the prime minister. But by then the virus was already so prevalent in so many parts of the country that the lockdown was the precursor to the widespread imposition of the ‘stay-at-home’ tier 4 in most of England.
By chance I interviewed the SAGE member John Edmunds on the 7 September when he warned that the virus was spreading ‘exponentially’. At the time, Cummings was taking advice from Edmunds, among others.
Edmunds is one of many scientists who believe it was a serious error not to lock down in September.
I asked the prime minister in my interview yesterday whether he made a mistake in rejecting the advice to lock down in September. He said that there were other considerations for him at the time and that there is evidence the tiering system he later introduced was beginning to work, before the new strain of coronavirus became such a pernicious factor….
…But his colleagues – including senior non-political Whitehall officials – say that before both the first and second lockdowns he urged the prime minister to take suppressive measures earlier than the prime minister was prepared to do.
A senior official who still works for the prime minister says: ‘In March Dom was storming around Downing Street shouting “lock down now”’.
I am told that an important cause of the breakdown of relations between the prime minister and Cummings in the autumn was that the PM was aware Cummings thought he had ‘f***ed up’ by not locking down in September.
It is understood Cummings would give evidence on oath about all this to any future public enquiry.
I’m sure it will come as a great shock to large swathes of the country that Dominic Cummings is a strong supporter of lockdowns but seeing Mr Cummings damaging the Prime Minister might be the most compelling piece of television since the last few minutes of the final episode of the second season of The Mandalorian.
I suspect the testimony by Cummings will be sub optimal for the Rishi Sunak, the current favourite to succeed Boris Johnson. My own hunch is that Cummings will confirm the rumours that Rishi Sunak threatened to quit in September because a second lockdown in September/October would have made his job impossible.
Dominic Cummings confirm that speculation then Sunak’s leadership ambitions end, as Sunak will be seen as the man who sacrificed the lives of thousands to make his job easier is not something a politician can recover from. I think the evidence Cummings will be in front of the Health Select Committee whose Chairman is one Jeremy Hunt, who still retains Prime Ministerial ambitions. Hunt may be the ideal man to extract the most damaging confessions about the Prime Minister and the Chancellor from Dominic Cummings.
So cui bono from Mr Cummings giving damaging evidence against the Prime Minister? It should be remembered that Dominic Cummings was never been the Prime Minister’s man, he’s is and always has been Michael Gove’s consigliere. Taking out the PM and the favourite to succeed him would be impressive work from the man David Cameron labelled a psychopath. There are other adjectives our former Prime Minister used but this is a family friendly website.
With now two specific and in depth polls showing the former Red Wall being the shakiest part of the Tory coalition Boris Johnson’s attraction to Tory MPs elected in Red Wall will fall.
If the government handles the vaccine rollout as badly as they did the parts of test, track, and isolate, then they may not get a vaccination bounce in the polls but rather the opposite then 2021 really will be annus horribilis for Boris Johnson.
What may force Gove’s hand is the SNP winning a majority at Holyrood in May whilst Gove’s an ardent Brexiteer he’s even more of a Unionist and he might see it as his destiny to save the Union (please no jokes about if Michael Gove is the man to save the Union then Union is already doomed.)
Deep down I think Gove’s not impressed by Boris Johnson’s handling of the Scottish question, where it seems Boris Johnson’s actions seem more likely to see Scotland to secede not less likely. My own hunch is that Boris Johnson thinks if it doesn’t happen on his watch he won’t get the blame, which makes secession even more likely long term.
At the time of writing you can back Michael Gove at 12/1 as next PM on Betfair, I think that’s value, especially in the light of the 2/1 you can get on Betfair as 2021 being the date of Boris Johnson’s exit as PM.
PS – Actually the second most thing I want to see in 2021 is England v. Scotland on June 18th played in front of a full Wembley, the atmosphere will be out of this world. Even before a plague this match would have meant so much to many of us. But played at full Wembley means the world is starting to return to normal. The match is scheduled to be played weeks after the SNP are likely to win a majority at Holyrood and then Boris Johnson declines to authorise Indyref2, the atmosphere and performance might just be reminiscent of the Calcutta Cup match of 1990, albeit played in England not Scotland. I suspect the Tartan Army will make it feel like the match is being played in Scotland.