All Dominic Cummings needed was ‘plausible deniability’.
In the world of sharply polarised political opinion, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, and a key strategic figure in the UK Government, didn’t need to be exonerated. He just needed the truth – that he travelled a 520-mile round trip to visit his parents in Durham – to be a contested enough narrative that the right could rage against ‘twitter mobs’ and ‘politicisation of the crisis’.
For a time on Saturday, it looked like he’d scrape by with the feeble excuse that he had to travel the length of England to secure child care. But this effort (flanked by a media operation involving leading MPs tweeting and soap-boxing for Cummings in mass-tandem) was blown away when the Mirror released a second story confirming that he had broken Government restrictions of travel not once, but twice.
And yet, even as senior Conservative activists, MPs and commentators deserted the special advisor, on Sunday Johnson stood square behind his man. On Monday Cummings was finally forced to address the criticisms of himself, and relate his lockdown movements in detail, before a bizarre press conference at which he was characteristically defiant. The press conference essentially confirmed the worst elements of the allegations against him. Now Cummings stays on but as a kind of gangrenous limb, eating at the flesh of the government’s otherwise well-preserved pandemic era image.
Maybe the move to protect Cummings will hurt Johnson a good deal and maybe it wont; it is hard to measure how far beyond the media/politico bubble stories of this kind travel. But given the extreme sensitivities animated by the lockdown (and the painful decision of so many not to travel to see their sick relatives, even on the deathbed) the wider question is, why risk this? Why risk so much credibility to keep Cummings?
The reluctance to replace him, and the ferocity with which he has been defended speaks to a fundamental weakness at the heart of a UK Government that, on the surface, really shouldn’t exist. This is the first stable, big majority government (David Cameron’s second had collapsed in little over a year) that the UK has seen in a decade. The route of Labour was gigantic in December, and the party’s new leadership has taken a quietist and humiliated turn (Labour didn’t call on Cummings to resign, for example).
What hold does Cummings have over Johnson? He’s certainly not the proto-fascist Machiavelli that haunts the fantasies of some of his more hysterical critics. Cummings is no more the evil genius than Steve Bannon, the supposed svengali to Trump who was, in fact, dumped by the US president in 2017 with little fanfare.
Indeed, many of Cummings’ political ideas – his obsession with combating liberal administrators and the sacred cows of British public life from the BBC to schools and the NHS – now face barren soil. What public appetite for a ‘disruptor’ of institutional life at a time when the BBC and NHS play such an undeniable role in national unity?
Yet it is true that Cummings has acted as fixer for some of Johnson’s electoral victories, from the 2016 Vote Leave operation which helped carry Johnson to the top of the British political scene, to the 2019 triumph. Above all, and though he made many enemies (leavers and remainers) doing it, it was Cummings who helped engineer the purging of dissent from within the Conservative party itself, whose parliamentary wing was long sharply divided on Johnson.
We could draw the conclusion that Cummings totemic figure as a protector of Johnson’s regime is what makes him of so much worth to Johnson. The UK Government knows that it faces some truly daunting challenges, and that the coalition of forces brought together by the Conservatives in December will present many fractures in the months and years to come and especially in the wake of coronavirus. It is for this longer game that Johnson is keeping Cummings.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
- A letters section
- Upcoming events for activists
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.