DOMINIC CUMMINGS’ APPEARANCE before the Westminster inquiry today has echoes of the Salmond-Sturgeon split that dominated Holyrood’s pre-election period. Here we have the two founders of contemporary English nationalism and Conservatism arrayed against one another, two old allies locked in a death grip, a battle of big beasts. One of those rare parliamentary committees that members of the public may care to watch – if only for the drama.
Johnson’s nemesis has already pre-released some extraordinary allegations. The Prime Minister, Cummings contends, was struggling to finish a book on Shakespeare (to fund his divorce from Marina Wheeler) when the covid crisis bit, and thus he was posted missing in action. Cummings has similarly accused all manner of senior figures of incompetence, indolence and outright lying.
Most damagingly of all, Cummings has once again raised the spectre of “herd immunity”. Contrary to endless Government (and media) assurances, letting the bodies pile up was policy – at least by Cummings’ account.
Now, to the real question – will any of this matter? The Tories have already survived a succession of sleaze scandals to come through the last election unscathed. One recent poll gave them an 18 point lead over Labour under the hapless Keir Starmer.
In other words, the Cummings-Johnson showdown looks likely to play out like Holyrood’s own high noon. Revelations and accusations will titillate the political class; and some authentically scandalous insights into state power will be uncovered. But given the absence of viable opposition, the wider public may look the other way. In crisis situations, many will rally to the flag until incompetence cuts into voters’ everyday lives. Our own experience shows that even Peter Murrell and Leslie Evans survived – could it be the same for Matt Hancock? Are governments now scandal-proof?
Of course, theoretically the Cummings allegations are more serious than those levelled against Sturgeon. Peoples’ loved ones and livelihoods matter more in electoral terms than a parliament’s complaints procedures (serious though those questions are). Thousands of lives and millions of jobs were on the line while Johnson’s focus was (allegedly) on his divorce settlement.
But despite months of bungling on lockdowns, PPE, track and trace and all the rest, Britain got lucky. Being outside of the EU made it easier to procure vaccinations, and that programme has restored Conservative fortunes. With continental states floundering, the UK has surged ahead. Johnson’s mode of English nationalism is just as hegemonic and just as secure – if not more so – as Sturgeon’s Scottish nationalism.
Nonetheless, just because the effects are marginal doesn’t mean they are insignificant. A crucial section of Scottish voters will watch Cummings’ evidence with despair, not just because of the allegations themselves, but also because of the apparent absence of any viable opposition in Westminster.
No matter what he does, it’s Johnson or nothing: like it or lump it. That’s a difficult message for Scotland’s progressive unionists to sell. And if – a huge, stonking if – this parliamentary term is about independence, these questions will continue to matter.