Dominic Cummings. | - EFE

The revenge of Dominic Cummings

What Dominic Cummings told MPs on the Health and Science Committees was, of course, a terrible indictment of the Johnson government’s handling of the early months of the Covid pandemic: the delay going into lockdown because the seriousness of the threat was not recognised, the failures over protective clothing for medical staff, the ineffectiveness of the test-and-tracing system, transferring infected patients into care homes without a test, and so on. A terrible indictment, certainly, but one he had been leaking to the media for many weeks, so that extent his evidence came as no surprise.

Nor was it a surprise that he should declare that Boris Johnson is unfit for office. We have heard that before. His accusations of persistent lying against Matt Hancock, however, were more of a surprise, especially his claim that other senior officials shared his opinion that the Health Secretary was a disaster and wanted him removed. Hancock has never looked the part and evidently struggled with his brief. But his sheer resilience, appearing before the media several times a day for months on end, and frequently before MPs as well, argued for hard work and seriousness of purpose.

Whether he is guilty of lying to the public or not – and one suspects these charges are at least partly true, mainly to save political face – he surely deserves a break, though Cummings may have made such a relief less likely. There is also the outstanding rumour that he may have helped friends to get NHS contracts.

No one could doubt, even before Cummings’s testimony, that the government has made serious strategic mistakes, causing confusion with its sudden changes of direction, with the result that many more people died than might have done otherwise. The public are generally aware of this, but also of the fact that other governments were equally perplexed by the disease and how to treat it.

Crucially, the fact that Johnson cut corners in securing vaccines, especially in outwitting Europe, and has rolled out the programme so effectively, appears to have made him practically immune to criticism, or has at least given him a powerful defence in the public mind. “Get Brexit done! Get vaccination done!” – these are strong political slogans, especially for a Prime Minister who followed vacillating leaders like David Cameron and Theresa May and is facing opposition from another in Keir Starmer.

As for the damage Cummings could do to Johnson, I note that an opinion poll, asking people if they were more inclined to believe him or Boris, came out strongly in favour of believing the Prime Minister. The point is that the public think they know Boris, warts and all. His evasions, his mistakes and his other frailties are very well known. His human qualities are one reason why such a surprisingly large number of people of all classes seem to like him. As a Times commentator said: “So Johnson is chaotic. But why change a winning formula?”

They will wonder about the motives for this very personal assault– and will remember Cummings’s own hapless defence of a blatant breach of the Covid regulations in visiting county Durham with his family. Moreover, he was at Johnson’s side when all those alleged mistakes over Covid were being made and no hint of his opposition to them ever reached the public.

When he resigned, it did not come about because of principled opposition to the government’s Covid policy, but because he had lost an in-house battle with the Prime Minister’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, over the appointment of a new chief of staff in Downing Street. She apparently vetoed his nominee, Lee Cain, the Director of Communications, and Boris took her side. Exit Cummins, thirsting for revenge.

Two asides – one on Ms Symonds, the other on Mr Cain. The papers (and Wikipedia) all say that Carrie Symonds is the first mistress of a Prime Minister to live in Downing Street. Not true. Frances Stevenson, secretary and mistress of David Lloyd George, lived with him in Downing Street during his six years in power – and carried on living with him afterwards, even though he had a wife. They had a daughter together. When the wife died during World War 2, Lloyd George married Ms Stevenson, who thereby became a Countess, but he died two years later at the age of 82. She lived on until 1972.

As for Mr Cain, he made his name on the Daily Mirror during the general election campaign of 2010 by constantly harassing David Cameron while dressed as a chicken. Whether that would have been a useful qualification for a Downing Street chief of staff, I don’t know, What I do know is that Frances Stevenson would have done that job perfectly – and probably did.

Magical memories

For me that came with the death at 90 of Doug Holden, the last member of either side to play in the famous so-called “Matthews” Cup Final of 1953. It mattered to me because it brought back vivid memories of sitting in a teenage friend’s house watching the match on a flickering 9-inch television screen. I remember winger Holden helping to put Bolton 3-1 up after 55 minutes against my beloved Blackpool.

Then came the moments of magic from Stanley Matthews on Blackpool’s right-wing – “jockey-like and jaunty”, as a poet described him, dribbling past defenders time after time and sending a stream of crosses into the Bolton goalmouth, from two of which Stan Mortensen scored to bring the scores level.

I can still feel the emotion of those pulsating last moments as Matthews sent across another ball that won the game when Jackie Mudie knocked it in. Matthews winning a Cup Final in 1953 went with Gordon Richard finally winning the Derby, Everest being conquered, and Len Hutton winning the Ashes – all in apparent tribute to the new Queen.

I got know Matthews a bit some years later, when he wrote to congratulate me on a piece I had done about him in the Daily Telegraph. He asked if we could meet. He was nearly 80 at the time and I remember he was wearing a sky-blue lightweight suit and skipped across the floor in loafers like a man several decades younger.

We got on so well he invited me to his 80th birthday party, where I sat next to the equally great Tom Finney. Stan told me he hated the phrase “the Matthews final” because Mortensen had scored a hat-trick.

I also went to his funeral five years later, when 100,000 people lined the streets of Stoke. Other traffic stopped, men took off their hats, women stopped shopping and children stopped playing as the funeral cortege went by.

It’s strange what memories can be revived by a random news story.