Opinion UK

The Dominic Cummings debate

George Beglan: “Cummings is reckless and immoral: one rule for them, another for us.”

One name is all that’s been on people’s lips for the past few days. For once it’s not Trump, Boris or a Union candidate. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s highest-ranking advisor, has invited controversy by driving 260 miles to Durham. The first area of concern is of course whether or not he acted contrary to guidance on social distancing and self-isolation enforced to varying degrees by the government he is part of. The honest answer seems to be that even if one believes this to be the case or is outraged by the recklessness in his behaviour, the vagaries of the guidance render this improvable beyond any reasonable doubt.

To quote the government advice for those living with children: ‘Keep following the [preceding] advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible [due to the demands of childcare].’ As you can see, there is no clear standard of behaviour and thereby no concrete standard against which to judge Mr Cummings’ actions, at least from an exclusively legal point of view. Steve White, the Police and Crime Commissioner, has demanded ANPR cameras and mobile phone data be checked against Mr Cummings’s story, though this will have to be agreed to by the Durham Police Chief, Jo Farrell, before even beginning to go anywhere.

What about the moral matrix of viewing this event then? Mr Cummings claims that he acted: ‘reasonably and legally, balancing the safety of my family and the extreme situation in Number 10.’ It is clear that this sentiment isn’t widely shared: the resignation of Douglas Ross, the junior minister for Scotland, grabbed headlines for 5 minutes today but is, to be brutally honest, insignificant on its own. Some 30 Conservative MP’s may too voice dissent, but Parliamentary arithmetic within the Johnson Ministry, especially given the timing and subsequent lack of other legislative concerns for the time being, can just about abide this. What may provide a stronger incentive for the Johnson government to switch tactics is the public relations hit these events have caused.

KCL research suggested that public opinion of the Johnson Ministry was declining already before the story broke, the chief driver for this being its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. YouGov has a survey showing that 71% of the electorate likely think that Cummings breached lockdown guidance, with 59% of that polling sample believing that he should resign his position on that basis. No matter how earnestly Mr Cummings believes his own story, it is becoming increasingly clear that the very majoritarian system and electorate he so loved and built the Johnson campaign to hijack doesn’t share his belief. 

There is however, a more dangerous unintended consequence of Mr Cummings actions. Citizens are right when they point out that it is one rule for government advisors (read as, those who likely hold a Damoclean sword over unknown yet presumably vital parts of the government), another rule for them. One only has to take a look at the coverage to find plentiful anecdotes to this effect. This is especially true in parts of the country where police have been especially draconian about enforcing ‘guidance’; Derbyshire and The Right Honourable Lord Sumption’s comments on the ‘disgraceful policing’ occurring there are the first instances which should leap to mind. ‘Policing by consent’ (such a seemingly ludicrous idea), despite its increased frequency on the airwaves, is now definitely dead. It is what these feelings then lead to which manifests danger; public confidence in the government’s advice on COVID-19 and how to deal with it has dropped by 17%.

Distrust of the government is not the inherent problem; in every instance I’d argue it to be a positive thing. Rather, what a lack of credibility may cause, a surge in activity which transfers the virus (not helped by Neil Ferguson’s actions) is what presents the real danger here. This, should it manifest, will be the damning proof against Mr Cummings. 

William Atkinson: In Defence of Dominic Cummings

There is a spectre haunting Westminster: the spectre of Dominic Cummings. He often traipses into Downing Street with the wide-eyed stare and shabby appearance of your average revolutionary. But the obvious trouble with revolutionaries is they like breaking rules. Cumming is no different. In his own words he “hacked” the British political system in 2016 with Vote Leave, and the Prime Minister’s chief advisor has made it clear he wants to radically overhaul Britain’s politics and government. He is a maverick who likes to stick two-fingers up at authority. But his rebellions have apparently caught up with him. He stands accused of breaking lockdown. Westminster wants its spectre gone.

Westminster has jumped on the allegations and many are calling for Cummings to go on the grounds he appears to be applying one rule for himself and another for everyone else. So many of us haven’t seen relatives in weeks because of lockdown, but here’s the PM’s own advisor selfishly travelling across the country. An advisor should know better. Cummings sits in on SAGE meetings where scientists explain just how deadly this virus is and how important following government advice is for containing it. Not only did he put himself and his family in danger, but he did so recklessly, knowing that by doing so he was ignoring the rules the rest of us were following. No wonder a YouGov poll said 52% of people asked thought he needed sacking. After further revelations this morning suggesting he later returned to Durham, it’s unsurprising that not only Labour but his own Tory backbenchers are asking for his resignation. Surely Boris must bite the bullet and junk this Poundland Lenin?

No, he shouldn’t. Dominic Cumming did nothing wrong. If anything, he acted admirably. He is being attacked either for political purposes or because people don’t fully understand the situation. Some more clarity on what happened is needed. Yes, the government message was “Stay at Home”. But the message was not the law, which allows for certain exceptions. Dr Jenny Harris, England’s deputy chief medical advisor, confirmed on March 24th that in the “exceptional circumstances” of two parents both having coronavirus, they could call upon family members for help with childcare. It happens that Cummings’ and his wife Mary Wakefield’s closest family are in Durham. So when Cummings thought he was coming down with symptoms, he did what any desperate father with a four year old would do: he pelted up the M1 to his sister’s. Punishing him for being a good father and his family for living up north is ludicrous. What else could he have done? Broken lockdown rules and hand his son over to friends and raising their chances of infection? By contrast, self-isolating in a separate building to his family, with his only contact being his sister leaving shopping on the doorstep, seems wise, caring and sensible.

Calls on him to resign from politicians and journalists are largely politically motivated. Labour’s letter to the Cabinet Secretary was basic political point-scoring, and as useful as a condom dispenser in a nunnery. The demands from Tory backbenchers are also from Cummings’ political opponents : those Europhile members of the Tory party like Caroline Nokes and Damian Collins, who dislike Cummings policies and his desire to keep them on the backbenches, or hard-line Eurosceptic MPs like Peter Bone and Steve Baker who Cummings has previously had run-ins with. These are not people who give Boris Johnson sleepless nights. Complaining about Cummings might get them on Sky News, but they won’t persuade the PM.

But that doesn’t make Cummings safe. There is one group whose opinion the PM cares about far more than any high-minded MP: the general public. Cummings knows that better than anyone. Both at Vote Leave and now, he has avidly tracked public opinion. Clearly the public aren’t happy at his behaviour: the YouGov poll showed that clearly enough. As angry constituents’ emails pile in MPs’ inboxes, as the questions at press conferences and PMQs become increasingly heated, the pressure on Boris to sack Cummings will only build. He really could be punished just for being a good Dad.

But what’s more important than what Boris does is that Cummings’ critics take a long hard look at themselves. I’ve no doubt also that many now slagging him off have repeatedly broken the rules themselves. There are many, however, who have also strenuously followed them, and their anger is justifiable, but unwarranted. Cummings was justifiably concerned for his son. No matter what grief we’ve had from lockdown, do we really want to be a nation of curtain-twitching informants, shopping our neighbours on slight suspicions or jumping onto a persecutory bandwagon to feel good about ourselves? I hope we’re better than that. Dominic Cummings is a good man and has done nothing wrong. Leave him alone.