The Dominic Cummings episode is, above all else, a morality tale. First, because of how he responded to the revelations. Second, because of his record.
If Cummings had just apologised at the very beginning, we would probably now be talking about something else. People are not saints and they make bad calls, but they also admit when they’ve done something wrong. If he had shown genuine empathy or regret, people might have felt more forgiving and he would have emerged relatively unscathed. (Although that same reprieve did not extend to former Scottish Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood and to scientist Neil Ferguson, both of whom did express contrition and were guilty of far less.)
The problem, in the end, was not what Cummings had done but how he sought to eliminate it. Those who watched Monday’s press conference were struck by his arrogance. Those who didn’t took away the key lines that he wouldn’t apologise, had no regrets, hadn’t done anything wrong and hadn’t considered resigning. That had the effect not simply of dismissing what he had done, but also dismissing the experience of those who had made far greater sacrifices. Instead of appealing to people, Cummings antagonised them. Here was a man who seemed to be staring the country in the face and telling them they were small and didn’t matter. The only commendable element was that he didn’t pretend to feel otherwise.
A government which lies to save something people want is cynical. A government which lies to save someone they don’t like is idiotic.
Yet this was all on-brand. Since the moment he entered Downing Street, Cummings has run government as an experimental start-up, ignoring any conventions that appeared outdated or inconvenient. He has considered empathy a waste of time: when one Labour MP last year complained that he had received death threats, Cummings simply told him to back the withdrawal agreement. Cummings’s shtick has been to cultivate contempt for the rest of the world: who would have expected him to follow rules he set for others? His real problem is not that he has suddenly become part of the elite, but that his lifelong membership of it has now been exposed.
But then what did we expect of the man who hired him? The prime minister, too, delivered a simple message this weekend: it wasn’t just that Cummings hadn’t made a mistake, it wasn’t even that neither of them cared, it was that actually he had done the right thing all along. In other words, they weren’t wrong, and we were.
Ministers at first bent over backwards to insist Cummings didn’t break guidelines. Now they are trying to make the story disappear. Michael Gove ludicrously declared that “people will make their own minds up”, as though it was a controversial judgement on Bake-Off.
For all the numerous contortions to defend Cummings, no minister was able to explain why his presence in Downing Street was so important. One memo did, however, prove revealing. Tory MP Danny Kruger, Johnson’s former political secretary, told colleagues that an attempt to oust Cummings amounted to a vote of no-confidence in Boris Johnson. The two men are politically fused and interchangeable. Perhaps not since Rasputin has a leader been so in thrall to an adviser.
People were at least emotionally invested in Brexit when Johnson was lying about it. Very few are prioritising the career of Dominic Cummings. A government which lies to save something people want is cynical. A government which lies to save someone they don’t like is idiotic. Few of us believed that Johnson cared for the national interest, and he has now chosen one man over the whole country.
If Cummings stays, he will embody a permanent reminder of how Johnson put his adviser before people’s lives.
Needless to confirm, after five days this story is not going away. By the end of last night, a government minister had resigned and 39 Tory MPs had publicly called on Cummings to go. Today’s Telegraph leads with the story. The Times splashes with the associated plunge of the Tories’ poll ratings.
The ramifications could be severe. The first issue is public health. The prime minister’s endorsement of Cummings is also a rejection of his own pandemic strategy. If Cummings can break the rules, so can everyone. What previously seemed like clear rules now look nuanced and murky. At yesterday’s press briefing Matt Hancock spontaneously committed to ditch fines other people had received for childcare – quite literally changing the law to accommodate the prime minister’s staffing arrangements. The response to a pandemic requires communication and clarity. Even scientists have proposed that there are people currently alive who will now die.
Governments start to rot from the inside when they are seen as complacent, scornful of the people and out of touch. Once the rot sets in, it stays.
The other long-term consequence is the effect on the government. The vastly proliferating jokes about driving-based eyesight-tests and Barnard Castle illustrate the dangers of ridicule. More significant is the loss of moral authority. There is no law that dictates a government with a large majority cannot collapse at the seams. John Major lost his credibility after Black Wednesday in 1992, with terminal results. This may be worse: Johnson has both lost his credibility and exposed his contempt.
The government’s most serious problem is that the damage is now done. If Cummings stays, he will embody a permanent reminder of how Johnson put his adviser before people’s lives. If he goes, it will be because he had to. Nobody will give the government credit for doing the right thing, because none of them wanted to. Whatever now happens, nothing will undo Johnson’s misjudgement, arrogance, or refusal to apologise. Trust that is lost does not return. Governments start to rot from the inside when they are seen as complacent, scornful of the people and out of touch. Once the rot sets in, it stays.
The government’s main sin is not that it doesn’t care about the people it exists to serve. It’s that it cares about itself more. Ironic, indeed, that in expending so much effort on self-preservation it may already have destroyed itself.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence.