Dominic Cummings admitted to travelling 250 miles from London to his parents’ house in Durham while having the symptoms of Covid-19, admitted to returning to Downing Street on the same day that his wife, Mary Wakefield, displayed symptoms of Covid-19 and admitted to travelling 30 miles from his parents’ home in Durham to Barnard Castle a fortnight later in order to test whether his eyesight was up to driving back to London.
That is to say, he admitted to what seem to be, on the face of it, open and shut breaches of the rules and regulations about what you should do if you are experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19. His defence rests on his argument that the guidelines, which do not have legal force, contain an escape clause for parents. Is he right?
As I’ve written before, the guidelines and the law are unhelpfully vague. The coronavirus law has a clause that gives everyone – not just parents with children, everyone – the right to violate lockdown if they are at risk of harm. You don’t have to stay in lockdown with an abusive partner or parent, you don’t need to socially distance while using a fire escape. And it is certainly reasonable, in my view, for someone to interpret that clause as meaning you can travel 250 miles by car in order to make sure your child is cared for. Whether a court of law finds that interpretation is correct or not, I think it is certainly a reasonable one. The coronavirus guidelines are less helpful still: they can, essentially, be boiled down to: “it’s tough if you have children: nonetheless, do try to self-isolate!”
The legal problem is that you can’t use either that clause or the guidelines to justify packing you, your partner and your child into your car for a 30-minute journey to test your eyesight. It is a straightforward breach of lockdown, and arguably of the laws of the road to boot. That line was hard to take seriously: it either raises questions about Cummings’ judgement or his honesty. In any case, it is a clear breaking of the lockdown.
But I suspect that the politics will matter more than the legal realities, and ultimately the politics comes down to whether Conservative voters are brought back on side by today’s statement. Although Cummings did not say he was sorry, and in fact explicitly rejected several prompts to do so, that his body language looked contrite may have been enough for people inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt. So, too, will the fact that the law is vague and the guidelines are unhelpful.
But there are two problems: the first is the polling evidence, which shows that a large majority of voters believe Cummings broke the lockdown and that a smaller majority believe he should resign. Voters are not splitting on this issue based on Conservative-Labour or Leave-Remain divides, but on life experience. Younger voters, who may have travelled home from their university accommodation or their shared rental flats, those with young children, and younger parents are all slightly more likely to believe that Cummings either did not break lockdown or should not resign. It’s older voters, who have not seen their grandchildren, and who may be shielding, who are slightly less inclined to forgive the PM’s chief aide. And, of course, the Tory problem is that the voters who are more likely to be sympathetic are not the voters they need to keep on side and the ones who are angriest are.
The second problem is whether the poor handling of the story – the decision to first meet it with aggression when it broke on Friday (22 May) rather than issuing a statement such as the one given today – means that voters of all stripes aren’t prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. One positive interpretation is, as I say, to note that the bill does contain a loophole and that Cummings was within his rights to interpret it that way. A negative one is that the government’s law is badly drafted and that the interpretation is now being bent to suit the political and personal priorities of the ruling elite. A positive interpretation of Cummings’ beaten appearance, and his failure to say the word “sorry” itself, is that he was apologetic in deed if not word. A negative interpretation is that he failed to apologise because he is not truly sorry and the press conference was a transparent attempt to placate the public.
Which interpretation you have will say a lot about whether you give the government the benefit of the doubt or not, and the biggest question is whether this difficult Bank Holiday weekend marked the point where the Johnson government lost that most important of assets in a democratic society: goodwill.