Iain Dale: Cummings is behaving like a woman or man scorned. But you can’t dismiss all that he says.

28 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Thousands of people died needlessly. That’s the main allegation Dominic Cummings made in his seven hours of evidence to the health and science select committees.

But boy oh boy did he go further than that. So far Downing Street has remained relatively calm and rejected most of what Cummings has said, as indeed did Matt Hancock in the Commons yesterday morning. Many people may think Cummings is behaving like a woman or man scorned, and they’d probably be right.

But you can’t dismiss all that he says and wave it away as the ranting of a bitter former employee. There can surely be no doubt that there are serious questions for many people to answer, not least the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and former Cabinet Secretary.

The picture Cummings painted was one of chaos at the centre of government. He said neither he nor the PM were qualified to do their respective jobs and it was a miracle they were both in Downing Street.

I do have a question though. Given Cummings was regarded as Deputy Prime Minister by most people – the most influential man in Number 10, the man with the ear of the Prime Minister, how credible is his “nothing to do with me guv” line?

He was there. He was present. Boris Johnson relied on him, yet he maintains that his warnings were ignored. Yes, he did admit failures on his own part, he apologised again for his visit to Barnard Castle, but the vitriol poured on Hancock in particular had to be seen to be believed. He accused him of lying to the Cabinet, lying to parliament and said he and Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, had tried to persuade the PM to sack his health secretary.

Do I think this is all very damaging to the Government? Yes I do. Do I think it damages Johnson? Yes I do. Do I think it will have any effect on his or his party’s opinion poll ratings? I’m not sure I do. Does the Cummings evidence mean we’re more informed about what happened over care homes, PPE, and lockdowns? Yes, it does. And it also argues for the inquiry to start maybe earlier than is currently intended.

Sometimes these set piece evidence sessions get a huge build up in advance and then on the day it’s a bit of a let-down. Not on Wednesday. This was the most extraordinary select committee evidence session I have witnessed in 40 years of watching them. And that’s saying something.

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How times change. Twelve months ago most journalists and commentators were labelling Cummings a complete liar over his trip to Barnard Castle. They were calling on Johnson to sack him. Now they are hanging on Cummings’ every word, as if his truth is the gospel truth. And it’s clear why. Because they see his evidence to the select committee as a way to initiate the process of bringing down a Prime Minister.

Now it may well be that history will record yesterday as the day which marked the beginning of the end for Johnson, but I doubt it. My suspicion is that when the next batch of opinion polls are published, the Teflon reputation which the PM enjoys won’t have been dented too much, if at all.

I may be wrong, but that’s how it feels to me. Why do I think this? Well, I call it the LBC listener test. When Britain is angry about something, people tend to call into LBC in their droves to get it off their chests.

That didn’t really happen on Wednesday night. Apart from the usual suspects, who phone in every day no matter what we are talking about, the phone lines didn’t really hum. Yes, we had quite enough callers to fill the show, and then some, but were my colleagues in the gallery rushed off their feet? No. They were on the night of Barnard Castle, though…

Having said that, Gaby Hinsliff of The Observer Tweeted yesterday that she’d got the builders in and when they arrived, they were talking about Cummings. She didn’t say whether it was in a good way, or whether they were saying how dare he attack Johnson!

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One thing is sure – that any reshuffle is unlikely to come before the summer recess. If anything, Hancock’s position has been shored up after Wednesday’s events. Even if he is moved, it would have to be to an equivalently ranked position, like education, for example.

If there is a reshuffle it will surely either be held in late July or early September. There were rumours last week that the reshuffle was to be held this Wednesday to deflect attention away from the Cummings evidence. I can’t really believe that was ever a serious suggestion, because it would have undoubtedly backfired. It would have deserved to.

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I first met David Amess back in the mid 1980s when I was working in Parliament and he had just been elected as MP for Basildon in the 1983 landslide. It was a different time. A couple of weeks ago I spent an hour talking to him about his life and career in politics. I think ConHome readers will enjoy it.

Iain Dale: Biden has neither the imagination nor energy to heal his tearful nation

15 Jan

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday I got the chance to interview James Comey, former FBI Director, for thirty minutes. He’s got a new book out called Saving Justice and was doing the rounds of UK broadcasters.

I was a bit hacked off to have to sign a non-disclosure agreement which prevented us from broadcasting it on that evening’s show, but when I saw he was on Newsnight I understood why. They always insist on going first. Emily Maitlis interviewed him for ten minutes and, although it was all interesting stuff, I compared it to what I had got out of him in thirty minutes and decided it was yet another example of where the long-form interview wins out.

Mind you, it wasn’t plain sailing. I’m working from home at the moment, so we did it on Zoom, but as a fail safe also recorded it on an audio system called iPDTL.

However, when Comey came online I could hear myself back in my ears two second later, and everything he said came through twice. I was already quite nervous and a bit daunted by interviewing Comey, having read his first book A Higher Loyalty.

I also had had very little time to do any preparation, so I was well and truly flying by the seat of my pants. But experience tells me that the less preparation I do for an interview, the better the interview is. I had no list of questions, or even a list of topics. And that works for me. It doesn’t for everyone.

It turned out to be, I thought, an absolutely gripping conversation, for that’s what I wanted it to be – a conversation. And there were about a zillion newslines that came out of it. Anyway, you can judge for yourself and download it now on the Iain Dale Book Club podcast, should you so wish.

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It’s difficult to think of a political leader who has left office in such a state of disgrace as Donald Trump. And he has 100 per cent brought it upon himself. He still inspires massive loyalty and devotion from his MAGA fan club, but to most of those who have observed him closely over the last few years, this Wagnerian denouement was almost inevitable.

While I disagree with him being no-platformed on most forms of social media, the ban on Twitter has diminished him almost beyond recognition. Anything good he did, whatever achievements he may have had (and contrary to a widely held popular view, there were more than a few, especially in the field of foreign policy) have been relegated to a footnote in all his political obituaries. The narcissist has shattered his own mirror.

The inauguration of Joe Biden will not end the great divides that have been exacerbated over the last four years. The impeachment hearings will further entrench that divide. And if Trump is indeed found guilty in a Senate trial (which I doubt), then it won’t just be a divide, it will be a chasm. Biden has neither the imagination, nor the energy, to heal his tearful nation. It will take more than four years of steady as she goes to achieve that.

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Partly because of the nature of the modern-day publishing industry and partly because today’s politicians don’t seem to be prolific writers in the way that politicians used to be, we don’t see too many political memoirs come onto the market nowadays. Perhaps it’s also because we have so few politicians who might merit writing a memoir, you might think, should you be of a more cynical persuasion.

Over Christmas I read the memoirs of Tim Sainsbury, former mid-ranking minister in the Thatcher government and MP from Hove from 1973 to 1997. The book is self-deprecatingly titled Among the Supporting Cast. In many ways it harked back to the days when even the most junior minister would write a memoir when they left politics.

It takes a lot for me not to enjoy a political memoir, but this book achieved it. As I sit here writing this column, I can’t think of a single interesting anecdote or conclusion from the book to regale you with.

The next memoir on my list to read is a new book Ayes and Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster by David Amess, the Southend MP. He was famously the MP for Basildon but switched to safer climes when his boundary changes affected his seat adversely. I first knew him when he was first elected in 1983, and there aren’t many MPs from that massive intake left in the Commons.

He’s never achieved ministerial office for reasons I have never quite been able to fathom. He’s been part of the poor bloody infantry for 38 years and has witnessed all the tumult over nearly four decades. I can’t imagine he has it in him to write a boring book, but I’ll let you know when I’ve finished reading it!