‘No apologies, no regrets,’ says No 10 adviser

Road-trip: The PM’s chief aide admitted travelling to Durham during the lockdown. © PA

Will Dominic Cummings go? The raging media storm over Boris Johnson’s right-hand man exposes the yawning gap between the practice of politics and the role of trust in public life.

This weekend, a dark and angry political storm swept across the United Kingdom. At its centre is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior strategist, Dominic Cummings.

The mastermind behind the UK’s “stay at home” message was caught ignoring his own rules, driving his wife and son 260 miles from London to Durham at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

Under the lockdown guidelines, people need a “reasonable excuse” to leave home. Yesterday, Cummings explained that he had travelled to his parent’s house to provide childcare for his son, after he and his wife were infected with the virus. The PM said Cummings had “followed the instincts of every father”, and refused to sack him.

Many remain unconvinced, angry that there appears to be “one rule for them, another for everyone else”. The storm of public opinion hit social media, with people sharing the personal sacrifices they have made to abide by the rules.

Reports that Cummings had made a day-trip to Barnard Castle “to test his eyesight” and taken a stroll to admire the bluebells outside Durham, only added to the growing fury.

Even the Tory-supporting Daily Mail asked incredulously: “What planet are they on?”, whilst the Church of England said the government had “no respect for the people”. Scientists advising the government accused the prime minister of “trashing” their fight against Covid-19, warning that lack of clarity would cost lives.

A rogue civil servant briefly managed to take over the official twitter account to denounce “arrogant” government “truth twisters”.

But, despite all the clamour, Johnson is stubbornly refusing to let his adviser go.

Cummings is his right-hand man. He played a decisive role in the successful Vote Leave campaign and masterminded Johnson’s huge win in last year’s general election.

The government will not face the voters again for another four years, and Johnson is already thinking about what he wants to achieve over the long term. Cummings, with his plans to revolutionise government, is a key part of that plan.

This is the realpolitik that could save Dominic Cummings.

But many political historians are pointing out, today, that politics and public opinion can be unpredictable. Cummings prides himself at being able to understand the mood of ordinary people. He told reporters, “It’s not about what you guys think”, and he believes the public will come round to the view that this is a distraction created by the media.

But, for many, his actions show a government without moral principles that cannot be trusted. And the loss of the public’s trust may be much more harmful to the government than losing their special adviser.

So, will Dominic Cummings go?

Sound and fury

No, he won’t. News stories come and go and, in a few days, the media circus will be obsessing about something else. Johnson has the overwhelming support of his ministers. He cannot afford to lose his chief strategist and he has plenty of time to win back the support and trust of the electorate before the next polls.

Yes, he will. Democratic power is built on public trust. This takes years to build, but can be lost in days. Every 24 hours that this crisis rolls on, the more damage it does to Johnson’s political capital and the government’s credibility. It is an inevitable force, like an ocean tide. If Johnson wants to remain prime minister of the UK – and he does – he will sooner or later need to sacrifice his favourite adviser.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever broken a significant rule? Did you have a good excuse?
  2. Do some people have a greater responsibility than others to follow the rules?

Activities

  1. Think of a creative excuse why you haven’t done your homework and write it down. Try your excuse out on an adult and see if they believe you.
  2. Write Boris Johnson a letter advising him what he should do. Should he sack Dominic Cummings or stay firm?

Some People Say...

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

EM Forster (1879-1970), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There are two people who can decide the future of Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson and Cummings himself. Both deny that the adviser has broken the rules and, for the time being, he remains in his job. However, the Durham police have been asked to investigate Cummings, and the media will continue to report any unanswered questions about his movements during the lockdown. Any fresh revelations will keep the pressure on the government.
What do we not know?
In this story, there is a political question and a moral question. The political question is about who has power and who makes the decisions. Is it the prime minister, or Dominic Cummings, or both? What influence does the media have? But there is also a moral question about trust and integrity in our political system. Did Dominic Cummings break the rules and, if so, should he lose his job?

Word Watch

Dominic Cummings
The 48-year-old Oxford graduate relishes conflict and controversy, and appears to revel in his unpopularity. “A mutant virus” and “a career psychopath” are some of the nicer labels he has been given.
Abide
To obey.
Barnard Castle
A market-town 30 miles from Durham. Yesterday, Dominic Cummings said he made the trip to test his eyesight before a longer drive back to London. An eagle-eyed Chemistry teacher clocked his registration plate and informed the police.
Lack of clarity
Public health experts accuse the UK government of being slow to respond to the crisis, and of lacking a clear strategy at the start and end of the lockdown.
Revolutionise government
Cummings argues that the government and the civil service are dominated by people with a background in the arts and humanities. He advocates a greater role of science in making policy and, recently, called for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to come and work for the government.
Realpolitik
A German term that means literally “realistic” or “actual” politics. This is a system of politics based on what is practical and possible, rather than what is ethical or morally right.
Ordinary people
Most famously, Dominic Cummings was responsible for the slogan: “Take Back Control”, which proved effective at connecting with a sense of nostalgia and powerlessness among millions of voters during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Subjects

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