Friday 29 May 2020

Cummingsgate: Why isn't Cummings going?

It is clear now that come hell, high water or Preston Guild, as they used to say when I was a lad, Boris Johnson is not going to sack lockdown buster Dominic Cummings, so unless Conservative MPs suddenly find the guts to remove Johnson, the 'adviser' is not going anywhere. But with 100 Tory MPs voicing their dissatisfaction publicly, and, we're told, many more privately, Johnson has had to spend political capital like it was going out of style to hang on to Cummings. So why?

1. Loyalty? This is the easiest explanation to dismiss. Johnson has betrayed wives, children, David Cameron, Theresa May, the ERG, the DUP, the new Tory voters in Red Wall seats, etc., etc. The only person to whom Johnson has ever exhibited loyalty is himself.

2. Cummings is so brilliant, he's indispensable? Not on the evidence of the last few weeks, surely? The government's response to coronavirus has been an error-strewn disaster. Plainly Johnson isn't much enamoured of work, and needs someone to do it on his behalf, but it's hard to believe Cummings is the only man known to the government capable of this.

3. Brexit? Do all roads lead here? Brexit has always been a house of cards. Even four years after the referendum (and decades after some to them started plotting), the Brexiters are still incapable of coming up with any credible alternative to EU membership. Brexit has always been a house of cards, and the Cummings card is right at the base. Does Johnson fear that removing it will bring the whole rotten edifice crashing down. (This might also explain why Cummings hasn't apologised. Maybe he and Johnson judged that any admission of fallibility, however small, could threaten Brexit.)

4. Does Cummings know too much? The question so courageously put to a Conservative MP by BBC interviewer Simon McCoy. Certainly if Johnson got on the wrong side of his 'adviser', there would be great danger that beans would be spilt - on Brexit, political funding, Russia (what was Cummings doing there for three years exactly?) or other things we as yet know nothing of. And it may not be only Johnson he knows too much about. What about all those other Tories who tumbled over each other in their haste to defend Cummings? 

My own bet is answer is 3 or 4, or possibly both. 

Thursday 28 May 2020

Cummingsgate: a letter to the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner

As ever with the Dominic Cummings affair, every new statement from the authorities raises more questions than it answers. Durham Police now say Mr Cummings 'may' have committed a 'minor' breach of the lockdown with his notorious 'eye-test' journey to Barnard Castle.

This has prompted me to email Steve White, Durham's (elected) Acting Police and Crime Commissioner. ( 

Dear Commissioner,
We all have an interest in trying to halt the spread of coronavirus, and so I have followed the matter of Dominic Cummings' journey to Durham closely. It prompts a number of questions.
1. Just before Mr Cummings' press conference, Durham Police changed their account of the contact they had had with him when he first appeared in Durham, revising it to say that when police officers saw him, they had discussed only matters of security. So, a family appears in Durham, where there is very little coronavirus, from another part of the country where there is a lot. Some of the family are ill (it is hard to know how many because the accounts from Mr Cummings and his wife are inconsistent). And the police officers don't ask any questions about what they're doing there? Or investigate whether they are in breach of lockdown rules? Is this properly discharging their duty to the people of Durham?
2. Over the last few days, while everyone knew there was a live police investigation into Mr Cummings, numerous cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs made prejudicial comments, asserting that Mr Cummings was innocent. By accident or design, this plainly puts pressure on Durham Police. Is prejudicial comment of this kind consistent with ministerial and/or MPs' codes of conduct?
3. Durham Police's statement refers to a 'minor' breach of the lockdown rules. There is surely no such thing, it is a breach or it isn't. Are you concerned that the police have been drawn into 'spinning' material for political reasons rather than objectively stating what they see as the truth?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Cummingsgate: seeing the point of the eye test

'I had to break the lock-down to drive my wife to a local beauty spot on her birthday in order to test my eyes' has rightly been seized on as the funniest part of Dominic Cummings' full-of-holes attempt at justifying his lockdown busting, and it has inspired many good jokes, but perhaps we're missing the point of it.

And of Cummings' attempts to fake an article he claimed to have written last year predicting coronavirus. It was apparently a fabrication so crude that any data scientist could detect it in their sleep. 

Remember when Russian agents tried to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018? They later appeared on Russian television delivering excuses so implausible that, in any other context, they would have been comic, claiming they came to England to see the 'wonderful town' of Salisbury with its 'famous cathedral.'

But we weren't meant to believe them. The excuses were intended to be risible to illustrate the Russians' contempt for us. The message was: 'we're lying. You know we're lying. We know you know we're lying, but we don't care. Because we're more powerful than you, and there's nothing you can do about it, so we're not even going to bother making up a credible story.'

The message from Cummings' implausible account is the same: 'I know you don't believe this, but you're not even worth lying to properly. I'm the elite, and you're the plebs. You do as I tell you. I do as I like.'

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Cummingsgate: Cummings' tactics

We used to get days like yesterday and Sunday every 3 or 4 years. Since Brexit and coronavirus, we seem to get them every three or four days.

It was interesting to watch Cummings' tactics. He turned up for the press conference 30 minutes late. Was this just keeping the opposing team sweating in the sun, while you relax in the cool of the changing room? No. It now seems it was to clear time to arm-twist Durham Police into changing their story. 15-love to Cummings.

Then he went for a long, detailed, and, to me anyway, in parts quite boring story. Listening is hard work, and taking in a whole lot of facts unseen is tough. So the journos, particularly the first couple to serve, didn't do very well at the q and a. Game to Cummings.

But the downside of Cummings' tactics is that although it helps you through the immediate hazards of the q and a, it provides an awful lot of material to be poured over and examined in the hours and days to come. 

The 'I had to break the lock-down to drive my wife to a local beauty spot on her birthday in order to test my eyes' was the stand-out weak line, and was being ridiculed in seconds. 'If this is the best he can do when he's had six weeks to think about it, how can he be an A-list spin doctor?' must have passed through quite a few minds. 

But now a number of other details are being examined, e.g. if he was doing nothing wrong being in Durham, why did he weave such an elaborate web of deception to pretend he was in London. Cummings says he was being 'targeted' and feared for his safety. Did he report such fears to the police? And if he did, did they say: 'Sorry. Can't help you, old boy.'?

Cummings also claimed he wrote a prophetic article about coronavirus in 2019, but this appears not to be true, though an attempt has been made to doctor records to make it look as though he had. This is particularly interesting, because if it is a lie, it is a completely gratuitous one. It is in no way necessary, or germane to Cummings' case. Not now so clear that Cummings is going to win the match.

There may be more as the fine tooth comb goes through his words.

My overall assessment is that the view of most people watching is that Cummings will continue to be seen as a rich toff with a country house who believed he personally was above the rules he was helping to impose on everyone else. He may have spotted some loophole in the very small print that said: 'If you fear you may at some point become ill, and you have a child, you can drive anywhere you like,' but none of the rest of us understood the rules that way, and it was certainly not what the government that Mr Cummings runs, sorry 'advises', was telling us.

Those continuing to back Mr Cummings are doing it at their political peril.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Southampton

The Black Death was the deadliest epidemic in British history. Did it enter the country through Southampton? Coronavirus has brought a resurgence of interest in my book, A Disastrous History of Britain, and here's the piece I've written on 'the plagues of Southampton' for the Southampton Daily Echo.

It tells the story of the plagues that have afflicted Southampton, Winchester and the region from the Black Death, through bubonic plague and cholera to Spanish flu.

Saturday 23 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: Cummings - the apology he never made

'I recognise that I made an error of judgement for which I apologise. As my wife and I were both feeling ill, we were worried about who would look after our small child. This, I am afraid, clouded my judgement, and we made the mistake of travelling to my parents' home. I realise now that this was wrong, and I would like to apologise to all the people who have been observing the lock-down, and to stress how important it is that we all continue to respect the rules drawn up to keep us all safe.'

Why didn't Dominic Cummings say something like that? OK it's not perfect, and it begs lots of questions: were you and your wife actually feeling ill? And if you were, why did you put yourselves, your child and other road users at risk by driving 260 miles? If you didn't realise what you were doing was wrong, why was so much effort put into concealing it? When did you realise? And why did you not apologise for your behaviour until it was revealed in the press? etc, etc

But IF you want to preserve public support for the lock-down, it's surely better than arrogantly and aggressively pretending you did nothing wrong? The leaflet Boris Johnson sent me was absolutely specific: if you have coronavirus symptoms, you 'must stay at home until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days.' 

We are told, through the nods and winks that have replaced proper government announcements, that Dominic Cummings was not a fan of lock-down, preferring a policy of 'herd immunity' (though, of course, there is no evidence that being exposed to coronavirus gives you immunity), protecting the economy at all costs, and 'if some pensioners die, that's too bad'. So are Johnson and Cummings actually relaxed about the lock-down collapsing? Indeed, would they welcome it, so they can help the economy even if that means more people dying? Or is that just Cummings' view, with Johnson, for whatever reason, afraid to resist?

As usual, with this 'government' of liars, we just don't know.

Friday 22 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Wiltshire

Interviewed by BBC Radio Wiltshire's James Thomas on the plagues of Wiltshire from the Black Death through smallpox, plague and cholera to coronavirus.

Drawing on my book, A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press), we discuss what we can learn today from these earlier epidemics and I tell the story of how plague, briefly, made Salisbury the capital of England.

The interview is in two parts. Here's the link - 
The first clip is at 1hr 13mins and the 2nd at 1hr 50 mins.
Or you can find them on youtube: part 1 

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Britain - Bristol

As I posted before, covid-19 seems to have led to a resurgence of interest in my 'Disastrous History' books, especially 'The Disastrous History of Britain.' (The History Press).

Here's my story in the Bristol Post about the plagues that have afflicted the Bristol area over the centuries, from the Black Death to Spanish flu, and about what lessons we can learn from them. 

The Black Death was the deadliest epidemic in British history, and Bristol is a prime suspect as the place where it first entered the country -

Saturday 16 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: was this Britain's first major epidemic?

Over the centuries after Stonehenge was built, the descendants of the people who created it largely disappeared from Britain. They were farmers of Mediterranean appearance with dark hair and olive skin. 

The great stone circle was finished about 2500 BC, but examination of 150 ancient skeletons from all over the country suggests that over the next 500 years, our Mediterranean-type ancestors had dwindled to about 10 per cent of the population.

They were replaced by the 'Beaker people' who seem to have originated in Central Europe. In the absence of any evidence of a major conflict, some archaeologists suggest that they brought with them a disease or diseases to which the native people had no resistance. Some have even suggested it might have been bubonic plague, which returned with such devastating effect during the 300 years or so from 1348.  (See my posts of  3 and 25 April.)

If the theory is right, it would mirror what happened to the Aztecs, the Incas and the Maya, who were conquered not so much by Spanish conquistadors as by the smallpox and other diseases they brought with them.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: second waves - a lesson from history

The Black Death, probably bubonic plague, was the deadliest epidemic in British history, carrying off up to 40 per cent of the population. What a relief it must have been when it finally petered out in the early 1350s.

But in 1361, the disease was back! In what became known as the ‘children’s plague.’ While the Black Death killed more older people, this epidemic was especially hard on those born since the earlier plague had departed. It was less devastating than the Black Death, but it still carried off perhaps one person in five.

There were another four serious plague outbreaks before the end of the century, and the disease struck regularly over the next 300 years so that overall it reduced Britain’s population by maybe half.

All sorts of cures and preventions were tried - bleeding, carrying nosegays of flowers or herbs, sealing windows with waxed cloth, the constant burning of aromatic woods or powders. But with the disease being passed on by fleas of the black rat, none of them worked. The best plan was probably to run for it, away from the towns and cities, as many of the wealthy did, but even that wasn’t foolproof, though, as generally happens, the rich survived better than the poor.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press)