Whatever your political stripes, there is no question that Dominic Cummings is an immensely effective campaigner. He was a crucial part of both the Leave campaign in 2016 and the emphatic victory of the Conservatives in December’s election. Even if one disagrees with every one of his political positions or his methods, he is undeniably an able advisor. However, let’s make something clear. His desk in Number 10 should have been packed by now.
The allegations that Mr. Cummings had broken lockdown rules surfaced on Friday evening after a joint investigation between the left-wing papers The Daily Mirror and The Guardian. Since then, the story has spiralled and left the public furious. Initially, I was cautious about my feelings; I am uneasy with the notion that someone should be forced out of their job for an error in judgement. No one can slide through life without a few mishaps. In Monday’s remarkable press conference, however, Mr. Cummings showed no sign of regret or apology.
It is undeniably the case – except it seems, to the cabinet ministers – that the lockdown rules were breached. The lengthy trip from London to Durham certainly broke the spirit of the rules, if not the rules themselves. But his extraordinary claim that he undertook a thirty mile drive to ‘test his eyesight’ is completely unjustifiable. Even if the reason for the drive is true, it is certainly a breach of the lockdown and does not apply to the dubious ‘exceptional circumstance’ that led to the initial trip.
Right. Deep breath. I could – and many have – go on to analyse the exact specifics of Monday’s statement. However, I am fed up of hearing about it. I even feel slightly sympathetic towards Mr. Cummings. It is clear that him and his family suffered a testing time. I believe that he tried to put the best interests of his family first. As Boris Johnson said, he used his fatherly ‘instinct.’ The problem though, is contained within that word. Instinct. These instincts broke the rules that he helped to create. It is the instinct of many to go and visit lonely relatives who are struggling through this period of imposed isolation. It may be others’ instinct to go to the hospital bed of sick relatives. However, the lockdown rules were there to suppress our natural inclinations. Many have struggled at home, when normally, they would have reached out for help. The silence over his whereabouts during the height of the pandemic indicates that his actions were problematic.
An admission of fault would have been enough. But none was forthcoming. Even a whispered ‘sorry’ for the self-prescribed eye exam would have been acceptable. I don’t think that he will be sacked or resign. His presence to Boris Johnson is clearly so important that the PM is willing to suffer immense political damage in order to hold onto his treasured confidante. If Johnson had wanted rid of the man, it would have happened days ago. But the implications of this full-throated endorsement of Cummings’ actions are clear. The government has complicated and compromised their own health advice in order to spare a political advisor.
Whilst the scrums and protests outside of Mr. Cummings’ home are unacceptable, as well as the despicable threats made against his family, the general public are rightly livid. The vast majority of people have faithfully followed the message that is rumoured to have been created by Mr Cummings himself: to stay at home and save lives. This means that every new government policy move is undercut by the fact that one of the top men in Number Ten is inextricably linked with a violation of the historic lockdown policy which disrupted every UK citizen’s life. Despite it saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and the fact that insiders report Mr. Cummings’ strong advocacy of it, many have had to sacrifice businesses, jobs, studies, and social lives in order to comply.
It is understandable that many feel the advisor’s actions reek of hypocrisy and contempt for the rules. They have faithfully followed them and now have been made to feel as if there if is no consequence to them being broken. No wonder recent polls show that many want rid of Dominic Cummings. This palatable anger dispels the notion that the press have made something out of nothing. People have lived the lockdown experience daily for months and can come to their own conclusions. The government’s support of their advisor makes people feel stupid. If what Mr. Cummings did was apparently alright, why did they struggle with sick kids at home alone? In reality, they were responsibly following the lockdown rules even if they would normally do something different.
This controversy now dominates the news agenda. Important government announcements are shunted from the headlines by Downing Street’s disastrous handling of this situation. Cabinet ministers and loyal backbenchers tweeting off-the-shelf messages of support does not show a united party, but an administration desperately trying to stitch itself together. As more and more Tories come out to support Mr. Cummings’ sacking, the saga shows no sign of abating. It is true that Mr. Cummings has long held a higher profile than the average political advisor due to his radical ideas and abrasive style. Though some of the anger from Westminster has been fuelled by various personal grudges against him, the general public’s rage does not come from their distaste for Mr. Cummings’ wider political activities. Many would never have heard of him before this hullaballoo.
He is now a distraction rather than the Machiavellian figure left-wing Twitter warriors love to slag off. The toe-curling media performances of many ministers in recent days and their evasion of reasonable questions by journalists show how much his continued presence is holding back the clear communication that is desperately needed in a crisis. It is impossible to sustain a coherent conversation with the population if everything has to be presented in a way that doesn’t throw Mr. Cummings under the bus.
However, if the PM now decides to ditch his advisor, the questions will rumble on. Why was there no communication of the fact Mr. Cummings had left London if his actions were above board? Is Mr. Johnson too dependent on his chief aide? It is certainly true that many of Cummings’ ideas are central to the government’s policy platform. A week is a long time in politics is the oft-repeated phrase. Will any of this really have a long term impact on the PM’s political fortunes? In some ways this is unimportant, it is having an impact right now on the government’s messaging whilst we are submerged in the biggest crisis since World War II. With testing, tracking and tracing, the crisis in care homes and a plethora of other issues are still so pressing there can be no distraction.
Despite Mr. Cummings’ rather controversial brand of politics, he is clearly a key figure behind closed doors. But he should have gone already. The only way the government could have come through this semi-unscathed – as Cummings sort of admitted – would have been him having made a statement far earlier than Monday and apologising for what was clearly a breach of the rules.
However, Mr. Cummings does not recognise that he has done wrong and remains resolutely unrepentant . If he goes now, the whole government will look even more ridiculous for defending him whilst he hung on. But, if he does leave in the coming days, the furore may reduce from a furious boil to a gentle simmer and potentially save lives. The political damage though, that might already be terminal.