If the government is thinking straight, by the time you have read this, Dominic Cummings will already have resigned.
It has been a furious 24 hours, in which Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser has been rigorously defended by the most senior figures in government after it emerged that he had travelled from London to Durham to be near relatives when his wife developed Covid-19 symptoms. But within the past hour there has been a new development: Cummings was allegedly spotted in Durham on 19 April, days after being photographed in London, having himself recently recovered from the virus. The report by the Sunday Mirror and Observer also alleges that Cummings was spotted in Barnard Castle, 30 miles away from Durham, on 12 April.
With these new revelations, two things are clear: Cummings must go, and the past 24 hours have cost the government dearly.
A huge amount of political capital has been expended by senior government figures in Cummings’s defence. The most senior cabinet ministers have tweeted their support of the adviser: “I know how ill coronavirus makes you. It was entirely right for Dom Cummings to find childcare for his toddler, when both he and his wife were getting ill,” Matt Hancock, the man with responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of our public health strategy, so fatefully tweeted. It all hinged on a man in desperate circumstances, doing the right thing for his beloved wife and child, we were told.
And earlier we were treated to the spectacle of Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, apparently tweaking lockdown measures on the fly during a press conference, and the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, re-emphasising the “safeguarding” caveat in all of the lockdown rules. Suddenly, the unequivocal “stay at home” message became a bit more equivocal, as the possibility of saying something that might contradict the government’s defence of Cummings haunted the press conference. In a pandemic, when public health messaging is absolutely vital to a country’s ability to survive the threat of the virus, that messaging was muddied – arguably, undermined – in defence of the Prime Minister’s top adviser.
It has been for nothing. Unless a miracle happens for Cummings, these earnest defences have been rubbished by suggestions he flaunted the rules for no legitimate reason. The government jeopardised its credibility today to save one of its most important figures. Now not only is Cummings’s position untenable, but he threatens to take the government’s authority on the coronavirus response down with him.