TO HIS DETRACTORS and admirers alike, Dominic Cummings was known variously as the “evil genius” and the Rasputin of Downing Street: a power behind the throne of Boris Johnson. First in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and then in the general election of December 2019, the duo appeared the most successful diviners of public mood of their generation—able to hear the grumblings of discontented suburban England that were inaudible to other politicians.
But at an extraordinary press conference on May 25th, Mr Cummings’s stammering insistence there is “room for reasonable disagreement” over his alleged breach of covid-19 lockdown rules appeared a parody of the shifty political class he once pretended to despise. And Mr Johnson, in stubbornly refusing to sack Mr Cummings, is being lashed by the same distrust in elites he used to summon. Suddenly his title as the champion of the scorned little man doesn’t look so secure.
At the centre of the uproar is Mr Cummings’s 270-mile (430 km) car trip from London to his parents’ farm in Durham in late March. This was, to many, a clear breach of the government’s rules—which Mr Cummings helped to draw up—that people should “stay at home”. It was all the more worrying given that his wife, and Mr Cummings himself, were already suffering the symptoms of covid-19. Mr Cummings said he had acted in a “reasonable” manner in taking his family to the farm. They stayed in a cottage separate from his parents, sister and teenage nieces; but if the couple were incapacitated by illness, the relatives could look after their four-year-old son.
Mr Cummings refused to apologise. If the public were understandably angry, he said, it was because they had seen media stories filled with untruths. Yet he confirmed the main thrust of those stories—including the fact that he had taken a drive with his wife and child to Barnard Castle, a local beauty spot (ostensibly to test his covid-19-affected eyesight before the long drive back to London). “The rules necessitate that you exercise judgment,” he said, a nuance that had not appeared in the government’s lurid advertising campaign. Downing Street will be hoping that this belated explanation, presenting the apparent rule-flouting as an attempt to protect a child, will suffice to dispel the public outcry.
If Mr Cummings’s trip was a criminal offence, it was a minor one. Under Britain’s lockdown laws, Britons had been forbidden to leave their homes except to buy groceries, take exercise or for some other “reasonable excuse.” The penalty is a £30 ($37) fine for first offenders who pay promptly.
But Mr Cummings’s sin—of hypocrisy— was arguably grave. Britons have been fairly punctilious in heeding the government’s warnings that those who flouted the rules risked killing their loved ones. Polls suggest the lockdown still enjoys high levels of support, and voters are reluctant to see it relaxed. Many have chosen not to meet new-born grandchildren, visit their dying relatives, or attend their funerals, in a remarkable period of collective abstention. Mr Johnson is fond of wartime rhetoric, but his televised appeals to unity, mutual sacrifice and national resolve have, for once, not seemed hyperbolic.
Mr Johnson’s defence of his aide—that he had “followed the instincts of every father and every parent”—angered users of Mumsnet, a popular internet chatroom for mothers which serves as a reliable barometer of public opinion. Another gauge is the number of senior clergymen who have publicly criticised the government, among them the Bishop of Leeds, who accused Mr Johnson of treating the public “as mugs”. More than 20 Conservative MPs, inundated with emails from constituents who have been unable to visit ailing relatives, called on Mr Cummings to quit. “What planet are they on?” asked the front page of the Daily Mail, one of Mr Johnson’s most enthusiastic media supporters.
The affair, and the government’s clumsy response to it, will bring about three reappraisals. The first is of the political project Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings built together. The voters who most wanted to “take back control” and then to “get Brexit done”—older, northern, working class—are among those who most assiduously followed the imperative to “stay home”. Conventional politicians, Mr Cummings wrote in his long, fiery blogs, regard voters with contempt, are deaf to the anger brought about by scandals and unable to fire incompetent officials. Yet this weekend the pair appeared strangely unaware of the upset brought about by Mr Cummings’s trip.
The second reassessment is of Mr Johnson’s apparent dependence on Mr Cummings. The space for political disagreement has shrunk under Mr Cummings’s tenure. Free-thinking ministers have been pushed-out, including Sajid Javid, a former finance minister, as have some of Downing Street’s more talented political aides. Mr Johnson’s apparent willingness to suffer so much damage to retain him is striking; Mr Cummings emerges from the crisis a more underwhelming figure, and perhaps now a more vulnerable one.
The third reconsideration is of the public’s willingness to endure a prolonged lockdown after more than two wearying months. Stephen Reicher, an adviser to the government’s scientific committee on behaviour during the pandemic, said the affair would undermine the public’s adherence to restrictions. Mr Johnson has warned that any unwinding of restrictions will need to be slow and cautious, given the risk of a second spike in infections. At a separate press conference shortly after Mr Cummings’s, he announced some new easing measures, such as the reopening of street markets from June 1st. The prime minister urged the public to “remember the basics” of social distancing and self-isolation. When Mr Johnson’s most important aide stands accused of ignoring the rules, what chance that the public will heed his exhortations?■