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Despite swimming in allegations of “Tory sleaze” from his opponents, Boris Johnson was characteristically upbeat when he faced reporters on Friday afternoon.
Pressed on those leaked text messages he exchanged with billionaire James Dyson at the height of the pandemic, he snapped back that there was not “anything remotely dodgy or rum or weird or sleazy about trying to secure more ventilators”.
The PM was, as ever, carefully sidestepping the real question: what exactly did he mean when he told the Tory donor that Rishi Sunak could “fix” tax issues for Dyson?
But with election warfare resuming proper and Covid infection rates continuing to fall, this week felt as though the normal rough and tumble of politics was back and crackling.
Not least because it marked the return to the stage of a very familiar Westminster actor: the Downing Street source.
Also known as ‘a source close to the prime minister’ or ‘one familiar with the workings of Number 10’, the source briefed three newspapers that the PM’s former aide Dominic Cummings was behind leaks to the media.
The PM was “disappointed” at how “bitter” Cummings had become, the source said, in three reports published at almost exactly the same time on Thursday.
Johnson’s official spokesperson attempted to distance the PM from the reports (yes, the ones citing a ‘Downing Street source’), calling them “speculation”.
Not one to take it on the chin, Cummings hit back hard in a blog today, saying it was “sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserve”, but he “will not engage in media briefing regarding these issues”. He repeated his call for a public inquiry into how the government has handled Covid and said he will give evidence to MPs.
An internal investigation is underway to find out who leaked what, but one thing’s for sure: Keir Starmer’s calls for a probe into the Dyson texts now seem like a sideshow.
And, while Johnson may struggle to escape Cummings’ desire for revenge if the former Vote Leave boss is indeed on the war path, it does Number 10 no harm if Johnson is able to sidestep scrutiny in the process.
It comes just days after the PM demoted his press secretary Allegra Stratton and scrapped on-camera briefings for journalists – rendering useless the new £2.6m press room Dominic Raab once insisted was “value for money”, which further raises questions about the government’s media strategy, both nationally and locally.
Angela Rayner was the first to go on the attack, telling Johnson had presided over a day of “cover-ups and cock-ups” and shown “breath-taking contempt for the country” over both the texts and Cummings.
The deputy Labour leader has also written to Tory chair Amanda Milling over the party amplifying “fake news” about hospital cuts in Teesside from a US-based site called Hartlepool TV. The site and its associated pages have also shared conspiracy theories about vaccines, the Capitol Hill attack and voting fraud in the 2020 US elections.
Rayner warned campaigning in the forthcoming elections must “not be used as a vehicle for the spreading of hate, conspiracy theory and misinformation”.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden won plaudits for his punchy pledge for a fans-led review of football this week. He has previously warned the government’s long-awaited online harms bill would herald a “new age of accountability” for tech companies who fail to tackle fake news on their platforms.
Here’s hoping the fast-approaching end of the pandemic is not seen by this government as a green light to avoid scrutiny itself.