Dominic Cummings accused of being Downing Street ‘Chatty Rat’ leaker

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Dominic Cummings - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
Dominic Cummings – Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Dominic Cummings was on Thursday night named by Downing Street sources as the person suspected of leaking text messages sent by the Prime Minister.

The former chief adviser to Boris Johnson is the prime suspect in the leaking of messages which implicated the Prime Minister in two separate lobbying scandals.

Number 10 sources believe Mr Cummings, 49, is “bitter” that the Government has been “making great progress” since he departed in acrimonious circumstances last November.

The revelation that Mr Cummings may be behind the leaks threatens to reignite the damaging briefing war which erupted in Number 10 after the former adviser was forced out last year.

The Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds have faced a wave of hostile leaks and briefings in the past six months.

Mr Cummings has been fingered as the likely culprit in the leaking of messages between Mr Johnson and the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and separate texts between the Prime Minister and the businessman Sir James Dyson.

The former adviser is understood to have had access to the text messages during his time working in government.

The source said: “If you join the dots it looks like it’s coming from Dom. More than anything the PM is disappointed and saddened by what Dom has been up to.

“Dom may feel bitter about what’s happened since he left. Rather than falling apart, the Government has been making great progress.”

Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson forged a strong bond during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. The newly appointed Prime Minister personally persuaded Mr Cummings to work with him in Downing Street days before he entered office in July 2019.

Mr Johnson later expended political capital in standing by his chief adviser after Mr Cummings was alleged to have broken lockdown rules by driving his family from his home in London to County Durham – and then driving to Barnard Castle.

Mr Cummings denied breaking the rules, but Tory MPs were among politicians who expressed their anger over the matter.

The Number 10 source said of Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings: “They worked together closely but if it’s true then it looks like he is doing everything he can to undermine the Government and people like Dyson, who was heavily involved in Brexit, [have] been caught in the crossfire.”

The first set of messages involved exchanges between the Saudi Crown Prince and Mr Johnson in June last year, which were leaked to the Daily Mail earlier this month.

Mohammed bin Salman was shown to have directly exhorted the Prime Minister to “correct and reconsider” a “wrong” decision by the Premier League, after it was accused of blocking a £300 million takeover of Newcastle United.

Dominic Cummings - Facundo Arrizabalaga/Shutterstock
Dominic Cummings – Facundo Arrizabalaga/Shutterstock

Mr Johnson was shown to have tasked Lord Udny-Lister, another senior aide, with investigating the issue in another leaked message.

Mr Cummings is understood to have had access to these messages during his time working in government.

He was also privy to messages exchanged between Mr Johnson and Sir James Dyson, the technology billionaire, in March last year.

Sir James was revealed by the BBC to have asked the Prime Minister directly to make changes to tax rules during the pandemic. Mr Johnson was shown to have pledged in return to “fix” the issues raised.

Several weeks later a temporary relaxation of tax rules regarding non-residents entering the country to work on the Covid outbreak, as requested by Sir James, was made. It benefitted the entrepreneur’s staff who came from Singapore to help make ventilators for the NHS, but the tycoon did not personally benefit.

Downing Street on Thursday announced it had launched an internal leak inquiry into the matter, which will be led by the Cabinet Office.

Both sets of leaked messages appeared in the midst of a wider row, which has engulfed Westminster for weeks, over lobbying and the relationship between government and the private sector.

While Mr Johnson said he made “absolutely no apology at all” about communicating directly via text with Sir James, Labour seized on the messages, claiming they were an example of “sleaze and cronyism”.

Concerns about a mole at a senior level of government first emerged last Hallowe’en, when details of proposals for a second lockdown in November were leaked to the press, despite the discussion involving only a small number of people at the highest levels of government.

The Prime Minister is said to have been furious about the leak, which effectively forced him to bring forward plans to announce tougher restrictions.

The leaker was immediately dubbed the “Chatty Rat” and a Cabinet Office inquiry was launched to find the culprit.

Suspicion has fallen on Mr Cummings for this leak. A Whitehall source said: “There is a widespread belief in Whitehall that Dom Cummings may have been responsible for leaking the details from the proposed lockdown.”

It is thought that even if Mr Cummings were definitively found to have leaked information from his time in Downing Street, there is little action that could be taken against him since he no longer works in government.

Other leaks that have emerged in the past six months include claims that Mr Johnson tried to persuade Tory party chiefs to secretly pay for an alleged £200,000 makeover of the Downing Street flat, reportedly masterminded by Ms Symonds.

The stories which emerged detailing the alleged plan to use party funds to pay for the flat refurbishment included leaked emails sent between a Tory donor and several senior conservative party officials.

Number 10 denied that the party or party donors funded any refit. More recently there have been a series of leaks revealing that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak was lobbied by former prime minister David Cameron. Mr Cameron attempted to secure access to Covid relief funds from Greensill Capital – a firm which was set up by a former unpaid adviser to Number 10, Lex Greensill, and which employed Mr Cameron after he left office.

There have also been a series of leaks against Ms Symonds suggesting that the Prime Minister’s fiancée tried to block the promotion of senior female mandarins. Her allies dismissed the suggestions.

Mr Cummings’ departure from Number 10 came in the weeks following the furore over the “chatty rat” leaks.

It also came amid allegations that he and a fellow aide had begun briefing against Ms Symonds after she had reportedly attempted to block the promotion of Lee Cain, the former communications chief, to the position of Mr Johnson’s chief of staff.

In the fallout ahead of their departures, it emerged that their allies had nicknamed the Ms Symonds “Princess Nut Nut”.

The Telegraph on Thursday night attempted to reach Mr Cummings for comment.

How the relationship between Johnson and Cummings fell apart

The atmosphere of mistrust over Mr Cummings in Number 10 now is a far cry from the strong relationship he enjoyed with the Prime Minister at the beginning of his administration.

The early months of the arrangement saw Mr Johnson’s minority administration battle MPs and peers over the UK’s departure from the European Union.

It was a war in which many detected the hand of Mr Cummings in the radical moves made by Downing Street – including the shock prorogation of Parliament, which the Supreme Court later ruled unlawful.

Nonetheless, the gambit precipitated a constitutional crisis that resulted in the December 2019 election, and ultimately delivered a stunning 80-seat majority for Mr Johnson.

Again the influence of Mr Cummings was seen in key elements of the Prime Minister’s manifesto and messaging. This included his renewed emphasis on science and technology, his focus on “levelling up” the North and Midlands, as well as delivering Brexit.

Within months of the poll, however, Mr Johnson’s priorities were derailed by the outbreak of Covid-19. Months into the pandemic, the row over Mr Cummings’ trip north and visit to Barnard Castle once again illustrated how much the aide was valued.

Despite fierce anger – including from the Tory backbenches – Mr Johnson stuck firmly by his right-hand man, expending vast amounts of political capital to defend him when other senior Conservatives would rather have seen him cast aside.

Carrie Symonds - Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Carrie Symonds – Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Derailed by row over Carrie Symonds

As the year wore on, a briefing war erupted between rival factions in Downing Street, including the so-called “Brexit Boys” grouping that included Mr Cummings and allies of Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancé.

Amid the bitter infighting, which insiders described as a “psychodrama”, the Brexit Boys were accused of referring to Ms Symonds as “Princess Nut Nuts” behind her back.

On the day that news of the cruel nickname emerged in The Telegraph, relations soured irreparably and Mr Johnson ordered Mr Cummings to leave Number 10 with immediate effect.

History of controversy

The suspicion heaped on Mr Cummings last night over leaked texts was not the first time he has been snarled in controversy over messages.

In 2011, when he worked as a special adviser to Michael Gove at the Department for Education (DfE), he was among aides accused of using personal email accounts that kept sensitive information away from officials.

At the time correspondence exchanged on non-official email accounts was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, although the law was tightened the year after to net private accounts.

Sources at the time insisted that advisers to Mr Gove had only used private emails to discuss Conservative party matters, and not Government business related to DfE.

Where is Cummings now?

Since leaving Government, little was heard of Mr Cummings until his appearance before the Commons science and technology committee in March.

He attacked the Department of Health as an “absolute total disaster” and “smoking ruin” at the outbreak of the pandemic, amid other claims.

He is also set to give further evidence on the Government handling of the pandemic to MPs.

In January he launched a new Twitter account on which he posts primarily about scientific research and innovation. He has frequently retweeted another Twitter account, called “Covid One Year Ago” which was also created in January and is “live tweeting the Covid pandemic as it happened on each day last year”.

Legal challenges

Later this year Cummings is likely to keep one eye on the outcome of a legal challenge brought by campaigners who say that Government contracts were awarded to two companies – Hanbury Strategy and Public First – allegedly close to him and Mr Gove during the pandemic without competitive tender. Lawyers representing the Cabinet Office are fighting the claim.

Public First was paid £564,000 to research the public’s understanding of coronavirus and the Government’s messaging about it. The company is owned by James Frayne, who first worked with Mr Cummings on the Business for Sterling campaign, and his wife Rachel Wolf, a former aide to Mr Gove. Previously Mr Frayne has said the company’s high-quality focus groups were the reason it was contracted by the Cabinet Office and said it was a “low margin” of profit in the work.

Hanbury Strategy, co-founded by former Vote Leave communications chief Paul Stephenson, was awarded two contracts collectively worth £648,000 – one to research public attitudes and behaviours linked to the pandemic, and one to conduct weekly polling. The first contract was awarded under emergency laws to expedite contracts without tender, while the second was for an amount beneath the threshold to require a competition.

Hanbury said previously its experts had worked with different political parties and international administrations and it was proud of its work for the UK state during Covid.

A former ally of Mr Cummings claimed he was “worried about his role in Hanbury and Public First”, but added: “To be fair to him, he was only doing his best in a hurry.”

Downing Street moving on

While many Westminster insiders were left agog at Mr Cummings’ dramatic exit last autumn and some predicted the resulting void in Number 10 would be hard to fill, new faces were drafted in and the operation swiftly stabilised.

Dan Rosenfield, appointed the Prime Minister’s chief of staff in January, is widely credited with professionalising the Downing Street outfit.

A Downing Street source said on Thursday night: “Dom may feel bitter about what’s happened since he left. Rather than falling apart, the Government has been making great progress.”

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