Tory MPs share horror over Sunak’s ‘secret election talks’ with Cummings

‘Never bring an arsonist into your home,’ Conservative MPs warn their leader

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Sunday 31 December 2023 19:51
Sunak claims Cummings would have ‘nothing to do’ with his government in campaign speech

Conservative MPs have expressed their horror at claims that Rishi Sunak held secret talks with Dominic Cummings about the former senior adviser to Boris Johnson making a return to government.

Mr Cummings has claimed that Mr Sunak sought a “secret deal” with him in a bid to “smash” Labour and win the looming general election.

His price for returning to the fold was that the prime minister would have to enact radical reforms – a deal that Mr Sunak ultimately rejected, according to The Sunday Times.

Tory MPs shared their alarm after No 10 did not deny that Mr Sunak had met Mr Cummings twice for discussions about political strategy last year.

One senior Tory, a former cabinet minister sympathetic to Mr Sunak, told The Independent: “It is a disgrace and shows poor judgement.”

Another senior Conservative added: “Whoever advised him to [meet Mr Cummings for advice] should immediately be sacked. Cummings needs to be handled with asbestos gloves.”

A third senior Tory MP, also allied to Mr Sunak, warned the prime minister: “Never bring an arsonist into your home. They will burn it down, and finger you for it.”

Cummings says Sunak wanted his advice on how to win votes

Staunch Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries said Mr Sunak had “repeatedly denied, on the record, having contact with Cummings, which makes him an on-the-record liar”.

It came as a video re-emerged that showed Mr Sunak claiming during the 2022 Tory leadership contest that Mr Cummings would have “absolutely nothing to do with any government that I am privileged to lead”.

Mr Sunak was branded “weak and desperate” by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for “secretly begging” Mr Cummings to return to No 10.

However, the Tory leader apparently decided against bringing Mr Cummings back, after the meetings saw the strategist make a series of demands about government priorities.

Mr Cummings urged Mr Sunak to abandon his cautious approach, hold an emergency Budget, settle the NHS strikes, and double the threshold at which people pay the 40p rate of income tax from £50,000 to £100,000, The Sunday Times reported.

The former adviser also advocated leaving the European Convention on Human Rights as part of a plan to reinvigorate the Rwanda deportation scheme.

Downing Street has not denied Mr Cummings’s account of secret meetings in July and December 2022 – but insisted that no job offer was made. A No 10 source said: “It was a broad discussion about politics and campaigning; no job was offered.”

According to the report, based on Mr Cummings’s account, Mr Sunak told the strategist: “The MPs and the media will go crazy. Your involvement has to be secret.”

But Mr Cummings said he was “only prepared to build a political machine to smash Labour” if the prime minister would commit to taking action on issues “we started fixing in 2020 but Boris abandoned”.

Sunak had vowed not to give any role to Cummings after Boris Johnson’s government ended in a shambles

On the topic of Mr Sunak rejecting his advice, Mr Cummings said: “The post-2016 Tories are summed up by the fact that Sunak, like Johnson, would rather lose than take government seriously. Both thought their MPs agreed with them, and both were right.”

The Liberal Democrats have called for an official Cabinet Office inquiry into whether Mr Sunak breached the ministerial code by failing to declare any meetings he may have held with Mr Cummings.

The party pointed to Mr Sunak’s transparency returns – which do not make reference to the meetings – and urged that an inquiry take place to look at whether the discussions were reported to the Cabinet Office, as is required under the code.

Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said that any “shady attempts to bring back Cummings through the back door need to be properly scrutinised”, adding: “We urgently need to know why these meetings weren’t declared in the proper way.”

A government spokesperson said: “In full accordance with the ministerial code, meetings with private individuals to discuss political matters do not need to be declared.”

Johnson sacked Cummings at the end of 2020

The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, questioned Mr Sunak’s judgement in respect of the “secret meetings” with “this loathsome individual who has brought so much chaos on our country”.

The frontbencher said on his LBC radio programme: “You’d have thought he would have learnt something from his poor judgement on Suella Braverman.”

The shadow paymaster general, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “From Cameron to Cummings, the prime minister is admitting he’s out of ideas and too weak to come up with his own.”

A Lib Dem spokesperson said: “This is a desperate move from a desperate prime minister.”

Mr Cummings, who helped to mastermind the Vote Leave campaign, is widely credited with helping Mr Johnson to win the 2019 election. But he left the following year after a spectacular fallout with the then prime minister.

He later admitted he had been working to bring an end to Mr Johnson’s tenure. He also became embroiled in a public scandal when it emerged that he had driven from London to County Durham at the height of lockdown.

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