Has Cummings finally crossed the line?
After years of climbing the greasy pole, Boris Johnson’s top aide and strategist, Dominic Cummings, has once again found himself in the line of fire after allegedly breaching the lockdown restrictions, in a two-part revelatory saga exposed by the Mirror’s political editor Pippa Crerar and her Observer counterpart, Matthew Weaver.
The first wave of the controversy began when it was reported that the Prime Minister’s chief adviser had made a 260-mile road trip from London to Durham, apparently to seek childcare support while both he and his wife were experiencing coronavirus symptoms. As reasonable as these intentions may seem, he was still in contravention of the government rules, which stated that those with symptoms must stay in self-isolation.
Saturday saw a barrage of senior ministers take to the airwaves and social media to defend Mr Cummings’ actions, with the common theme running through their messages of support being that Cummings acted reasonably and lawfully in difficult family circumstances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, accused those criticising Cummings of political point-scoring. Funny, that, as some Tory ministers seemed less offended by politicisation last weekend after sharing a doctored video targeting Sir Keir Starmer in his role at the CPS…
Nonetheless, after what seemed like a textbook Downing Street deny-and-deflect operation, the joint investigation revealed that Dominic Cummings flouted the lockdown restrictions for a second North East visit, shortly after returning from the first. If the first one was bad enough, the second was surely indefensible, as eyewitnesses claimed they caught a glimpse of the chief adviser moseying around Houghall Woods on April 19 – a flagrant violation of his government’s own advice.
The real genius in this joint investigation is the clever trickling of information from Crerar and Weaver, to draw out government ministers and watch them publicly back him, before dropping an even greater bombshell on Saturday evening, which has surely caught Cummings – and the government – well and truly out.
Despite Number 10 challenging the validity of the allegations, the pressure is now mounting on Boris Johnson’s top aide to quit, not only from the opposition, who are calling for a full investigation into his conduct, but also from within the Conservative Party. Two Tory MPs have already called on Cummings to resign, which surely negates their strategy of calling ‘fake news’ on the reports, unless Number 10 are happy to brand two of their own, as well as much of the public, who overwhelmingly back Cummings’ dismissal, as liars.
But even though senior government scientist Neil Ferguson stepped aside after shamefully abandoning his own advice to meet up with a married lover, it is disgraceful that the Prime Minister has publicly reaffirmed his backing for Cummings and defended what is frankly, indefensible. It is not surprising, however, given that he is undoubtedly a savvy media strategist, who masterminded the successful 2016 Brexit campaign and the Tories’ romp to victory in the December general election. The extent of the government’s denial campaign makes it crystal clear that he is a priceless asset to Number 10.
But it also shows the rank hypocrisy that some officials have demonstrated throughout the coronavirus crisis, with Cummings now becoming the third government-associated figure to be caught flouting the lockdown rules in the UK. If an ordinary citizen had attempted to travel to the other side of the country by car without a reasonable excuse, they would be rightly given a hefty fine, as some day-trippers from just outside the capital learned the hard way after making a cross-country journey to my town of St Ives. However, the infuriating double standard that this creates is that there is one rule for the elites, and another for everyone else. This must be particularly aggravating for those upon whom the coronavirus lockdown has had the greatest financial and mental impact. Even worse, all of these high-profile rule-breakers are officials who have been highly involved in the decision to impose lockdown and the public relations strategy designed to help enforce it. Cummings clearly doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned, though, as he attempted to brush off his culpability by remarking, “Who cares about good looks? It's about doing the right thing," and insisted he would "obviously not" consider his position.
For Dominic Cummings, though, this latest revelation is but another rung on a career marred in controversy and hypocrisy. I strongly recommend a recent BBC documentary which details in great depth the story of his controversial political career, built upon the worst tendencies of his personality. This was exposed when he was an aide to then-Education Secretary Michael Gove; his rude and cynical manner led to Cameron describing him as a "career psychopath". Cameron's deputy, Nick Clegg, a frequent target of Cummings' frustrations, alleged that he had "anger management problems". Despite being a talented PR man, he clearly has a blind spot concerning optics when it comes to his own actions.
If there is a spark of decency in Mr Cummings, he will realise the inherent hypocrisy in what he has done, and take his leave, as the public and media pressure reaches fever pitch. An apology akin to the two government scientific advisers who committed similar sins wouldn't go amiss either, but this would not suit his character. With Boris Johnson seemingly backing him until the last, this is further evidence of a government that made a fuss about being the 'the people's government' (another slogan with a populist, Cummings-esque whiff), but exposing itself to be anything but.