The chief propagandist of rage against the privileged Westminster elite has proved himself the epitome of the privileged Westminster elite, writes Elle Hunt from London.
He is the prime minister’s top adviser, he unambiguously broke the rules around lockdown, and people have already been fired for less. But I never really thought that Dominic Cummings would be forced to resign over his reported trip to see the bluebells.
For the blissfully uninitiated, Cummings is Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, a political aide who came to prominence as one of the agents of Brexit. As director of the Vote Leave campaign, Cummings is credited with some of its most memorable meaningless slogans, such as “Take back control” and “Get Brexit done”, and displaying them blown up on the side of a bus.
You might recall him from the television film, Brexit: The Uncivil War, in which Cummings was played by Benedict Cumberbatch – demanding a total transformation of the typically dapper actor. As Jared Leto put away pints of microwaved ice cream to do justice to Mark Chapman, one imagines Cumberbatch gamely lowering his standards of personal presentation so as to portray one of Britain’s worst-dressed men.
But don’t be fooled by Cummings’ contempt for office-appropriate workwear, the Oxbridge elite (though he is himself an Oxford graduate), and Westminster politics. For all his self-styling as a man of the people – an ally of the “misfits and weirdos” he called on to join him at No 10 – Cummings has a healthy superiority complex of his own.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Cummings has been revealed to have sat in on scientific advisory group meetings that should be apolitical – and now, to have flouted rules that he played a part in imposing. Yet, with everyone from Britain’s bishops to the Daily Mail seemingly aligned against him, Cummings remains unrepentant.
As revealed by the Guardian and Mirror, Cummings and his family made the 420km trip north to Durham from London at the end of last month – while his wife was displaying coronavirus symptoms, and despite advice against all nonessential travel.
Cummings and No 10 dodged questions for weeks, but their eventual explanation was that he was seeking support from his family to care for his four-year-old son. This was called into question by reports of Cummings making two trips to Durham, and another to visit a nearby castle – that last trip, a half-hour drive with his family as passengers, was undertaken, Cummings has in recent hours claimed with a straight face, was because he wanted to test his wonky eyesight .
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist advising the government, had recently resigned after having been visited at his home by his lover – a less obvious transgression. Even as the Tories rallied round Cummings, there was sufficient outrage that many thought he would be obliged to stand down, or at least to apologise. No one expected Boris Johnson to back him.
Yet that is exactly what happened at the briefing on Sunday night, when the prime minister said Cummings had “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity” (incredulous italics, mine). “I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that,” continued Johnson, who, let us never forget, has repeatedly refused to confirm how many children he has (again, with the italics).
No rap on the knuckles. Not even a blustered apology, as I’d expected. Instead, the suggestion was that Cummings was not only justified in breaking a lockdown imposed to flatten the curve of coronavirus, while showing symptoms – but somehow, to be commended for doing so. Meanwhile, Britons have missed loved ones’ funerals so as to abide by official advice to “stay at home”.
Nearly 37,000 people have died of coronavirus so far in the UK. Even after two months of lockdown, there continue to be roughly 2,500 confirmed cases a day. Yet Johnson’s briefing seemed confirmation of Cummings’ hold over the prime minister – and of the double standards for politicians, and the public.
The uproar was immediate, even from within the government. “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?” posted the @UKCivilService account, before the tweet was promptly deleted. On Monday the Daily Mail also called for Cummings’ resignation, charging him with having “violated the spirit and letter of the lockdown … giving every selfish person a licence to play fast and loose with public health”.
It might have been handled with a censure, but there was none of the swift action that was seen in New Zealand when health minister David Clark took lockdown liberties. As Martin Kettle wrote for the Guardian, even an apology from Johnson or Cummings might have been the end of the matter; “But Cummings does not do humble.” At a rambling press conference held in the rose garden of No 10 on Monday afternoon, Cummings refused to even admit wrongdoing. These had been “exceptional circumstances”, he said repeatedly in response to journalists’ questions about whether he had broken rules that others were expected to follow.
But everyone has had to navigate the exceptional every day of this pandemic – from grieving through screens, to juggling full-time work with childcare. Most have done so without the agency and resources of Dominic Cummings. And without much in the way of government leadership.
The UK was slow to introduce a lockdown (and quick to start relaxing it). Amid the mounting calls for Cummings’ resignation over the weekend, the Sunday Times published a damning report on the cost of the delay.
On March 3, there were an estimated 14,000 coronavirus infections; by the time lockdown was eventually announced, on 23 March, infections are thought to have grown to 1.5m.
“Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world,” concluded the Times report. Other countries are looking on in horror at the UK’s mismanagement.
Yet despite fears of a second spike, some schools and shops are set to reopen in early June: “careful but deliberate steps on the road to rebuilding our country,” said Johnson at his briefing later on Monday night. “We can only take these steps thanks to what we have so far achieved together”.
But earlier, the prime minister had said the public should “make up their own minds” about whether Cummings had been wrong to break lockdown – the implication being, don’t look to us to tell you.
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