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Thy King Dom come, thy will be done?
With Dominic Cummings, there’s always a blog. In one of his stream-of-consciousness posts in 2014, the man himself set out his approach to problem solving: “My own heuristics for working in politics are: focus, ‘know yourself’ (don’t fool yourself), think operationally, work extremely hard, don’t stick to the rules, and ask yourself ‘to be or to do?’.”
It doesn’t take a genius to spot the current irony of that penultimate bit of self-help advice: “Don’t stick to the rules”. Since his triumphs in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election, not doing what others want or expect has served Cummings as well as it has served Boris Johnson. Both have made careers out of defying political convention and political gravity.
But in the middle of a pandemic, getting people to accept that ‘them’s the rules’ is of course pretty crucial for public health. Add the old adage that ‘rule makers can’t be rule breakers’ and you can see why the PM’s chief adviser is in deep trouble with the public and with some of the Tory party.
It’s no surprise that clerics have been critical of Cummings. As the Bishop of Manchester put it: “Religions have had thousands of years of saying actually human instinct on its own is not good enough. We need rules.” And sure enough it was a vicar from Brighton who became the first member of the public to raise his conduct in the No.10 press conference on Tuesday.
Looking like a saintly Santa Claus, the bearded Rev Martin Poole underlined why the Cummings Clause (interpret the rules as for your own ends and put your family ‘instinct’ first) is still rumbling on as an issue. Matt Hancock was so taken by his eminently reasonable suggestion (to rescind all fines given to parents breaking lockdown if they did what Cummings did) that he actually said “we will look at it” (though aides swiftly grabbed the legs of the hare he had set running on that).
But a clutch of Tory MPs are not as willing to forgive the man who trespassed against them (or rather against the lockdown rules). The eclectic nature of those Conservatives who have called for Cummings to quit reflects his spectacular capacity to offend Brexiteers, Remainers and anyone whom he felt too, well, conservative to match his radical ideas.
Rightwinger Philip Davies says he should “do the honourable thing”. Scots Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said he was now a “huge distraction”. Former attorney general Jeremy Wright said, in fitting legalese, that Cummings’ actions “make it less likely that others will continue to interpret those exceptional circumstances clauses restrictively”.
Jeremy Hunt said there had been “a clear breach of the lockdown rules” on three separate occasions: in “coming back into work when he had been with his wife who was ill, driving to Durham instead of staying at home and visiting Barnard Castle”. We explore just why Johnson can’t bear to part with his adviser, but as one insider put it to us, when a crisis like his happens “Whatever the anti-zeitgeist is, you become that.”
Hunt refrained from calling for Cummings’ scalp, but at least he sounded more credible than Michael Gove’s mental gymnastics in defence of his old friend. Gove suggested he too had once tried to test his eyesight by driving, and then further claimed Cummings had been allowed to take exercise at Barnard Castle (even though police advised only a few days later against driving long distances for exercise).
Several of the Tory MPs brave enough to go public today hold marginal seats. They know that their opponents will be logging every word they say and using it in evidence later. Winning the next election isn’t Cummings’ main concern, but winning the war against Covid-19 ought to be. And that’s where his own actions obviously risk most damage.
It’s worth reviewing again just how Cummings justified his actions. He repeatedly said he and his wife were the ones interpreting the rules others had followed without question. “We decided...we had a discussion..We just thought let’s whiz down the road and see how I feel”. His most notable line was of course that “the guidance doesn’t say you’ve just got to sit there.”
But Grant Shapps too (who has largely had a good war) was so keen to defend Cummings that he too endorsed the approach of treating the lockdown list as more of an a la carte than a set menu. “We’ve never told people where they have to specifically locate themselves,” he said this weekend. It will be “different for different people under whatever circumstances their particular family circumstances happen to dictate”
There may be some government cynicism at play here, in that this whole row has less bite because we are no longer at the height of the toughest restrictions. Gove said today that “most people understand that as we move out of lockdown, exercising a degree of common sense and consideration as we adjust to a greater degree of relaxation, is just sensible.” As soon as more shops are open next week, and BBQs and garden parties are allowed, the hope may be that the public starts looking forward, not back.
But the other big thing next week (expect more at the Liaison Committee on Wednesday) will be the PM’s promised ‘world beating’ test-and-trace system with 200,000 tests a day. When put to Matt Hancock that Cummings’ conduct made it less likely anyone would willingly self-isolate for 14 days when ordered to by tracers, the health secretary replied: “It’s your civic duty to self isolate: for yourself, your community and your family.” The words ‘civic duty’ rang particularly hollow in the light of Cummings’ own conduct.
The most worrying YouGov poll today was not about party share, it was whether the public care.Some 70% (and 59% of Tory voters) say the row “will make it harder for the government to communicate future lockdown messages to the public”. Yet despite that, I suspect the public won’t cut off their nose to spite Cummings’ face.
Today the ONS revealed that there the total UK excess deaths linked directly or indirectly to the pandemic now stands at 59,228. Nearly 60,000 deaths and climbing (with new worries about deaths at home, not just care homes). And as we keep being told by Chris Whitty, the peak is an ‘artificial peak’. That 60,000 number would be much, much higher if the public had not shown the incredible ‘civic duty’ it has to date. Most people do the right thing, and they know what they’ve done has been worth it.
It’s for this reason that many millions will probably comply with the rules again, and Cummings will be able to continue in office, on the back of their continued self-sacrifice for the greater good. But the very fact that the PM probably can keep Cummings perhaps ought to prick his conscience that he shouldn’t - and that maybe he ought to sacrifice his closest aide, for the greater good.
Of course, axeing Cummings would in a way be the easy bit. The public are looking forward to leaving lockdown, but they are also capable of looking back at the same time. And if the UK does end up with one of the worst death rates in the world, the responsibility will lie utlimately with Johnson, not his ragged trousered Rasputin.
Quote Of The Day
“I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
Douglas Rossquits as a minister, citing his constituents’ own sacrifices in the pandemic
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Matt Hancock revealed that NHS patients will be recruited for a new trial of the antiviral drug remdesivir, saying it was “the biggest step forward in the treatment of coronavirus” since the start of the pandemic started.
Hancock also announced he had signed contracts to manufacture 2 billion items of personal protective equipment PPE.
Westminster’s Opposition parties, apart from Labour, sent a letter to the PM urging him to sack Dominic Cummings.
Labour’s ruling NEC picked David Evans as the party’s new general secretary. Keir Starmer said he would help ‘restore trust with the British people’.
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