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26 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:37am

Dominic Cummings has failed to reframe his story

People are still speaking out against the special adviser, and the anger defies the usual Brexit faultlines. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Even the announcement of shops reopening didn’t bump Dominic Cummings from the front pages of the newspapers. The focus remains firmly on the Prime Minister’s chief adviser after his extraordinary press conference.

A well-known master of messaging, we had a hint of Cummings’ skill, as the former Vote Leave chief attempted to reframe the discussion around his trip to Durham. Yes, people are angry, he conceded, but that is because of what “the media” has told them. He homed in on inaccuracies, of which there are some (the second trip to Durham after his return to London, the nature of his family’s contact with the police), to describe the media coverage as “inaccurate” and “false”, while ultimately upholding the substance of the Guardian and Daily Mirror’s reports. 

It was a set-up almost custom-made to elicit sympathy, to make him look singled-out and ganged up on by journalists, particularly those who used their platform to give a voice to the public anger of the past few days. And indeed, at points it seemed absurd, and a little uncomfortable, that in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the Prime Minister’s adviser was going into agonising detail over toilet stops for his four-year old son, and when and where he had stopped for petrol.

One suspects that was rather the point. In effect, Cummings threw down the gauntlet to the media: if you continue to report on this, he implied, you will look petty and hysterical, at a time when the government has much more important things to address, and you have far more important things to cover.

There are plenty of unanswered questions and points of contention: there’s the grand old coincidence that he happened to drive about 40 miles to a popular tourist destination with his family on Easter Sunday (his wife’s birthday) to “test his eyesight” for a longer drive. Indeed, his wife, Mary Wakefield, appears to be able to drive herself, according to pieces she has written for the Spectator.

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But those are exactly the kinds of things that Cummings hopes will make the media look absurd if they continue to pore over this affair in granular detail; it’s certainly more detail about Dominic Cummings’ domestic arrangements than I ever thought I would need to know.  

And there’s the question as to whether Cummings misled the press yesterday by claiming to have foreseen the dangers of coronaviruses on his blog. As Sarah writes here, it looks like the reference to coronavirus in an old blog post was only added the day he returned from Durham…

As with all effective political attacks, Cummings’ attempted reframing of the debate taps into a pre-existing truth. There is a lot of hostility towards this very divisive figure; the idea that this is a “witch-hunt” against the man who delivered the Brexit referendum result and Boris Johnson’s election victory will resonate in some quarters.  

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But now, a junior minister, Douglas Ross, has resigned. He may not be the last, as more Conservative MPs put their heads above the parapet calling for Cummings to go, despite a round of supportive tweets coordinated by the Conservative whips. 

Resignations like this one make it plainly obvious that Cummings’ attempted reframing has largely failed. This story defies the previous Brexit faultlines; it may have originated in left-leaning newspapers, but it is being carried forward by an outraged Daily Mail, by prominent right-wing commentators like Julia Hartley-Brewer, and by Conservatives who believe their party’s standing is being undermined by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser.

The Prime Minister has made his decision and is standing by his man. The only thing that will change that will be pressure from within his own party, and the main thing that changes their minds is pressure from their voters. While opposition parties meet this morning to discuss how to respond to the Cummings saga, the affair will be won or lost in Conservative MPs’ inboxes.