(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The latest British drama surrounding Dominic Cummings is a tricky one to explain, not least apparently for Cummings himself. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser may ride out the immediate crisis, with help from his boss. But both men will pay a price.
A visitor from another country might wonder at all the fuss. In the pantheon of government scandals, has there been anything quite like it? All the signs of a full-blown political crisis are present: the media feeding frenzy, the public outcry, the calls for resignation, an outraged bishop and a government minister’s protest resignation. The episode has acted as a catalyst for public discontent over Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis; his polling is plummeting.
And yet, there was no crime, no victim, no illicit affair with a foreign spy, no elaborate cover-up, no break-in, no scurrilous leak, no abuse of office nor peddling of influence. Rather, we have a very important, and perennially controversial, adviser to the leader of the country, who packed his sick wife and four-year-old son into their car and drove 260 miles north of London to County Durham to be closer to family through the illness that would affect them both.
During an extraordinary press conference in the Downing Street rose garden on Monday, Cummings explained his thinking. What if he and his wife were made so weak by their suspected Covid-19 infection that they couldn’t look after their son? He added that there had been threats against him and his house was constantly being photographed and filmed. His parents’ property had space where he could isolate without endangering anyone. He tried to take every precaution.
While “Stay at Home” was the British government’s unequivocal slogan, the rules governing the lockdown allowed exceptions, including for those who needed to care for “vulnerable” persons. It’s hardly a stretch to consider a four-year-old vulnerable.
Cummings’s alleged breach wasn’t the same as that of the former Scottish chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, who resigned after taking trips to check on her second home in the picturesque coastal town of Earlsferry in Fife. Nor was it anything like that of Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College scientist and adviser whose models informed government policy, who resigned after it was revealed he’d met during lockdown with his girlfriend (who lived with her husband and children).
Johnson’s adviser has, however, angered members of the public — and even some of Britain’s usually supportive right-wing media — because he too left the impression that he was above the rules. He didn’t ask his boss about his decision. He didn’t disclose it. He took three days to show even the foggiest understanding of why people might be bothered. He may claim not to regret his actions, but it was wrong to blame the subsequent public outrage on the media (after he confirmed most of the details of what was reported).
Some of his justifications raised eyebrows. He said he took a separate 30-minute drive to a scenic spot in the Durham countryside with his wife and son to “test his eyesight” before the return trip to London. Once you have to get into this level of detail, the audience has stopped listening and will have made up its mind. Ironically, that’s an insight Cummings and Johnson exploited to devastating effect during the 2016 “take back control” Brexit campaign.
With the world dealing with more important things, I’ve found it hard to summon the appropriate level of righteous indignation over Cummings. He did nothing terribly wrong, from what I can see, except that a man in his position ought to have known better. He was tone deaf in his refusal to see how the revelations would be received, arrogant in his initial brush-off and insensitive to what the people he wooed in the last election might be feeling.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his initial actions, the subsequent handling of the disclosures will take a toll; having a non-elected adviser giving press conferences on a stage usually reserved for political leaders is troubling. The success of lockdown measures depend on public buy-in. If the reaction to the Durham saga is that people feel freer to flout the guidelines, then messaging — which is meant to be Cummings’s great genius — becomes much harder.
There’s also a longer term cost to the government’s moral authority and credibility. Fairness is not a uniquely British value, but it has a mobilizing power here. The 2009 parliamentary expenses revelations, a genuine scandal where lawmakers were shown to be abusing the allowances, seriously undermined public confidence in elected representatives and reverberates today. A 2019 PwC report noted that seven out of 10 of those polled believe there is “one rule for some and a different rule for people like me.”
The lockdown was sold in terms similar to the mobilizing effort during the war, as a collective endeavor. Now most Britons seem to think the rules haven’t been applied equally.
Cummings’s continued presence will be a constant reminder of that grievance, a scab that the resurgent opposition Labour Party will pick at gladly. The prime minister’s defense of his adviser also underlines how invaluable he is to the Johnson project. Whether or not Cummings sticks around, Johnson will have to rebuild the confidence that was left on the side of the road during that trip to County Durham. Meanwhile, there is still a major health and economic crisis to manage.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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