The Government’s 122k Tests Claim is Classic Cummings.
#Toryliars began circulating widely on Twitter on Thursday evening after Matt Hancock proudly announced he had surpassed his target of completed 100,000 coronavirus tests per day. Whilst many lauded the figure of 122,000 tests, others were less convinced as it emerged that this included tests that had been sent out but not yet taken. The real number was estimated to be around 81,000. Although it is unclear why the measurements were changed or by whom they were changed, there does seem to be precedent for this from a current member of the Downing Street staff.
(Disclaimer: the comparisons I’m making with previous events are different in that the virus isn’t a party-political issue and of course I’m hoping the government are successful in tackling it, the purpose is just to note the similarities between this and Dominic Cummings’ previous political operations.)
Dominic Cummings has enjoyed an illustrious career as a special adviser, which was well-documented in ‘Taking Control’, a recent BBC documentary on the mysterious maverick. Before his ascent into Downing Street, he occupied a variety of strategic roles, but is best known for masterminding the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum, where his questionable relationship with numbers first made an impact on the national political scene. The infamous red bus, which suggested that Britain sent £350m a week to the EU and that the money could be spent on the NHS instead, was perhaps the defining image of the referendum. Despite being frequently debunked (the actual statistic is roughly £250m), it was an effective strategic tool as the subsequent hysteria framed the debate where Vote Leave wanted it to be. Every time the remain campaign denounced it as a falsehood, the average voter was focused on the fact that we made a net contribution to the EU, not the size of the contribution itself, something which inevitably created further hostility towards the status quo and helped deliver victory for Cummings’ campaign.
Cummings then became a big cheese at Number 10 last year, following Boris Johnson’s victory in the Conservative leadership contest. According to the aforementioned BBC documentary, he was one of the earliest supporters of an early General Election. It was during this campaign that his controversial creative juices again began to flow. The Conservatives made an ambitious pledge to increase the number of NHS nurses by 50,000, even though 19,000 existing nurses were included in this figure. When ex- Tory MP Nicky Morgan was challenged about this on Good Morning Britain, she stuck to the claim, despite its disingenuous nature. Predictably, the interview was labelled as a car crash and went viral. Although Morgan herself was made to look a little silly, again it was a clever strategy, which had Dominic Cummings’ name written all over it. Whilst Tory opponents were falling over themselves to discredit the number of extra nurses they were going to put into the NHS, the overriding message was that they were putting more nurses into the NHS, not how many. This was particularly important to the Tories, as a lack of significant public service investment during their time in office was a chink in their electoral armour, and by championing the NHS they were distancing themselves from their own record and instead focussing on their pledges for the future.
Whilst I don’t believe that this latest example of figure-fiddling is a sign that we’ve delved into a dystopian post-truth era, and it is unclear whether Dominic Cummings was behind it, it is important to highlight these concerns and the similarities they share with his previous exploits. Most people would have been fine had the government announced that 81,000 coronavirus tests had been completed, as it would have represented a large improvement on the previous numbers. So why the dishonesty? To an extent, Matt Hancock has himself to blame for setting himself such a rigid target, which elements of the media inevitably latched onto and became borderline obsessive over. The inevitable fallout, in which the government was accused of lying, only further damages political discourse and undermines public trust in politicians, at a time when we should all be pulling together to try and maintain the health of our nation.