Iain Overton has exclusive information that, as inquiries were made about Cummings’ use of encrypted software to conduct Government business, he switched to an even more secure encrypted messaging app.
Dominic Cummings is clearly a man who holds rules in profound contempt.
As a participatory member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the secretive group advising the Government on the Coronavirus pandemic – he knew full well that leaving his home when he was displaying viral infection symptoms was not allowed. But, in driving up to his parents’ home in the middle of lockdown, he went and did it anyway.
Such a lack of respect for the law is a hallmark of Boris Johnson’s chief advisor.
Last March, Cummings was found in contempt of Parliament after failing to appear before MPs investigating the deluge of fake news during the EU Referendum campaign. Conservative MP Damian Collins – then chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee – said that the 48-year-old had shown a “total disregard” for the authority of Parliament.
Cummings was also behind the Vote Leave campaign, one that was fined £61,000 by the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission. He and others wilfully colluded with other leave campaigns, so as to side-step overspend electoral rules. Cummings, then campaign director of Vote Leave, was widely cited in the Commission’s evidence. His fingerprints were all over the crime scene.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. He, a man born in 1971, is a typical Generation Xer – a group neatly summed up in a tweet by Emily Nussbaum as one of “gloomy, curmudgeonly ghosts”. Famously morose and regularly taking pops at the rich and powerful “Establishment”, he fits the definition perfectly – ignoring the fact that he lives in a million-pound townhouse in Islington and is married to Mary Wakefield, commissioning editor of The Spectator and daughter of Sir Edward Wakefield, a baronet who owns Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. But, being hypocritically fatuous isn’t a threat to the nation.
It is the “ghost” element, though, that should really concern us.
Cummings is not only contemptuous of the process of Parliament and the laws it imposes. He also holds deep contempt for the idea that he should be held to account for anything. He is a man who wants to rule – but to do so in the shadows.
This is summed up, I believe, by his response to a Freedom of Information request – a response that potentially constitutes a criminal act.
Last year, I asked the Cabinet Office this question: “Under Freedom of Information, can you please provide me with all information you hold relating to the use of encrypted messaging software on Government smart phones by No. 10 Special Advisors for official business? Separate to this, can you please offer a reassurance that you do not know that No. 10 Special Advisors are using personal smart phones and the use of encrypted messaging software for official business?”
Initially, it said it was too expensive to reply to the question. So, I complained to the body that oversees Freedom of Information complaints – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – and, after months, a grudging answer was forced. Following a search of paper and electronic records, a reply stated: “The information you requested is not held by the Cabinet Office.”
In other words, Cummings denied to an FOI officer that he uses encrypted software such as Signal or WhatsApp to conduct the business of Government.
Yet, according to a Financial Times report last year, Cummings does address the issues of Government through WhatsApp. It was reported that he even lists “Get Brexit done, then ARPA” as priorities on his account’s status. It was also reported that Cummings, along with the Prime Minister, has started using an even more secure encrypted messaging app – Signal.
“Signal has become very popular with ministers and senior No. 10 staff, with a raft signing on to it in the last few weeks,” Tom Newton Dunn, the political editor of the Sun, reported this month.
Cummings has almost certainly breached the Freedom of Information Act. As the ICO states on its website: “You may be breaching the Freedom of Information Act if you… fail to respond adequately to a request for information [and] deliberately destroy, hide or alter requested information to prevent it being released”. Clearly, denying that he uses encrypted software to a Cabinet Office civil servant tasked with establishing if he did or not, and shifting to even more encrypted software, fit these criteria.
I could make a formal complaint back to the ICO, but that wouldn’t achieve much. Disturbingly, I have seen an email from it stating that it has “decided not to take forward any complaints that require organisations to take action or respond to enquiries from us until the [pandemic] improves”. Transparency, it seems, is a victim of the Coronavirus.
So, we are left with a situation where the Prime Minister’s right-hand man – one who clearly considers himself to be above the law – is deliberately operating in the shadows. A man who is rarely held to account and appears to lie so as to prevent this from happening. A man who flouts the Government’s own regulations and is held in contempt of Parliament. And a man who has the Prime Minister’s ear.
Cummings’ hoped-for resignation shouldn’t just be about him driving 270 miles across the country with symptoms of a deadly virus during a pandemic. It should also be about his total disregard for transparency and truth – because this is a disease that could be far more costly to the health of this nation.