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How the Cummings debacle reveals the government’s greatest weaknesses and deadliest enemies

Could this be the moment from which Boris Johnson’s administration never recovers?

By Stephen Bush

The most important political commodity in a democratic society is goodwill. It acts as the equivalent of a party’s immune system: it doesn’t make it invulnerable to assault from outside, but it does increase the chances of recovery. The row over Dominic Cummings’ breaches of the lockdown is a demonstration of the importance of retaining goodwill. 

The Prime Minister’s chief strategist claims that he believed that the coronavirus regulations – which included a get-out safeguarding clause – permitted his 250-mile trip from London to Durham. While there, he took his partner and four-year-old child on a 60-minute round-trip drive to the town of Barnard Castle – in order, he says, to test his eyesight. 

Is this believable? Your answer depends on how much goodwill you are willing to extend to the government. If your reserves of patience are low, you might conclude that there is one lockdown rule for the country, and another for the government’s favoured apparatchiks. You might feel that no one in their right mind would decide that a safe way to check their fitness behind a wheel is to pack their loved ones into a car and take it for a spin.

Boris Johnson’s problem is that public goodwill is in short supply. The first poll since the row began, by Savanta ComRes on 26 May, showed that his approval rating had dropped by 20 points over the bank holiday weekend. Perceptions of the government’s overall competence and the ratings of individual ministers have shown similar falls. The fear among Conservative MPs is that the damage to their political immune system will be permanent. Their inboxes and postbags are toxic, and the party still has to navigate its way out of the sharpest recession since 1709 and bring the Brexit negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Tories are worried – but also perplexed. They don’t understand why the Prime Minister has put so much on the line to protect one adviser. Johnson ran London for eight years and was the foreign secretary for the best part of three years – all without Cummings. Yet Johnson has shown greater loyalty and self-sacrifice to his adviser than he has to any of his previous leaders – or indeed to his wives. Johnson is said to regard Cummings as a genius, following their back-to-back victories in the EU referendum of 2016 and the general election of 2019. But is that a good enough reason for the Prime Minister to put his own position in peril?

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For Johnson’s closest allies, his handling of the Cummings affair contributes to their growing fear that he feels overcome by events. He is apparently not enjoying Prime Minister’s Questions, where he has lost some of his ability to busk his way through, and the trade-offs involved in fighting the pandemic are said to daunt him.

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Johnson did not take complete charge of the crisis himself until Sunday morning (24 May), reflecting his tendency to switch off and delegate. By the time he did so, the government had already gone into attack mode, leaving him with two options: retreat, or stage a high-stakes defence of his aide.

How big a risk is Johnson taking by supporting Cummings? Smart MPs are making a comparison to 2007 and Gordon Brown’s ill-fated decision not to call an election. His approval ratings never recuperated. Could this, like 2007, be the moment from which the government will not recover? 

It’s never clear if a party’s loss of goodwill is temporary or permanent until it is too late. This may not be the end of the government – its immune system could rally. But the crisis has revealed its greatest weakness and deadliest enemies, and so shown us how it will eventually come undone.

The weakness is a tendency to start unnecessary battles. A simple contrite statement from Cummings on the evening of 22 May, when the Guardian and the Mirror first reported that he had broken the lockdown, emphasising that he had made a mistake but had been panicked by the condition of his wife and child, might well have seen off the row. 

An apology would have meant, at worst, a few months on the sidelines for Cummings, during which Johnson could doubtless have made unofficial use of his services. But instead, Cummings and No 10 responded with belligerence, risking an irreversible loss of standing. The calculation, as one pro-Cummings minister put it to me, is that “Dom’s brain will get us out of any problem that Dom’s ego gets us into.” But one day, it won’t. 

The Cummings debacle has shown us that when the killing blow comes, it will most likely come from the government’s own benches. Keir Starmer has, sensibly, stepped back, judging that Tory infighting is a more appealing story for the media. Johnson’s Conservative opponents come from three places. There are committed Brexiteers such as Steve Baker, who fear that the government is retreating from core principles: it is neither economically liberal nor genuinely committed to Brexit. Then there are ambitious men elected in 2015 or earlier who believe they will never hold ministerial office under Johnson because he prefers to promote women in order to offset the reputational damage of his serial infidelities. 

And there are those in marginal seats, such as Douglas Ross, MP for Moray, who resigned from his position as under-secretary of state for Scotland on the morning of 26 May. These MPs backed Johnson largely out of a sense of self-preservation and they will abandon him if they have to. 

It is this combination of the ideologically opposed, the professionally frustrated and the electorally threatened that will one day end the Johnson government – whenever it is that Cummings finally picks a fight that No 10 cannot finish. He may already have done so.

This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak