Boris Johnson is in an awful bind. He cannot afford to sack Dominic Cummings, but nor can he afford to keep him.
He cannot sack him because he would be helpless without his svengali. He cannot keep him because his government would lose all its remaining credibility as it battles Covid-19.
Cummings made Johnson. He masterminded the victorious Vote Leave campaign – the campaign that enabled the Brexiteers to seize control of the Conservative Party and, ultimately, elect Johnson as its leader. “Take Back Control”, the £350m weekly Brexit dividend for the NHS, the focus on overstretched public services as a wolf-whistle reference to immigration – all Cummings.
As one of Johnson’s first prime ministerial appointments last summer, Cummings purged moderate Tory MPs, championed a no-deal Brexit to pressure Brussels, persuaded Johnson to prorogue parliament, sidelined Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and crafted both the “people vs parliament” narrative and the assault on Labour’s northern seats that delivered Johnson’s spectacular general election victory last December.
Since then Cummings has bent cabinet ministers to his will, co-opted their advisers, driven strategy, and declared war on the BBC, civil service and judiciary. He has been the driving force behind an essentially idle prime minister, his eyes and ears, his enforcer, his problem solver, his helmsman. He is the animating spirit of Johnson’s government. Without him, the Prime Minister would be like a dummy without its ventriloquist, a puppet without its puppeteer.
“I owe him everything,” Michael Gove once said of the strategic genius whom he employed as an aide while education secretary. So does Johnson.
But how can Johnson possibly keep a man who has so flagrantly flouted the coronavirus lockdown rules that Cummings himself helped forge with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – the rules that the Prime Minister has repeatedly exhorted, instructed and ordered the country to observe?
Johnson is defending the indefensible. Cummings says he, his wife and four-year-old child self-isolated on his parents’ Durham property, but they could have done that just as well in London – the capital has delivery services, and Cummings presumably has friends and neighbours there as well. They could have done so without jeopardising his septuagenarian parents, or people at the service stations that the family must have stopped on the 520-mile round trip. And Cummings’s alleged visits to Barnard Castle and bluebell woods and subsequent trips to Durham from London – as reported by witnesses – certainly do not constitute self-isolation.
Cummings’s only conceivable defence is that the rules he helped draft were unclear – except they were not. Certainly his wife had contracted Covid-19, and there was a fair chance he would, too (especially if he sat in a car with her for five hours), but by no stretch of the imagination did his family’s predicament in March constitute an “extreme threat to life”.
If Cummings genuinely believed his family’s decampment to Durham was justified, moreover, why did Downing Street not tell inquiring journalists where they were in March? Why did Cummings’s wife, the journalist Mary Wakefield, write an article about their illness in the Spectator that suggested they were in London?
Given all that, how – if Cummings is not sacked – can Johnson, Matt Hancock or Dominic Raab possibly stand at the Downing Street podium and tell the British public that they must continue to observe the lockdown. How can they tell people to avoid seeing friends and relatives or spending nights away? How can they make them self-isolate for 14 days after returning from abroad? How can the police caution or arrest those who flout the rules when the man who forged them did so?
Even before Cummings’s stunningly stupid conduct was revealed, people were disgruntled. After nine weeks of lockdown they were increasingly beginning to ignore the rules. They were more or less openly gathering in parks and on beaches, visiting second homes, and meeting grandchildren. Polls showed their diminishing support for the government’s handling of the crisis. If Cummings is allowed to stay, it will lose all control and the lockdown will effectively be over.
Under no other prime minister in living memory would Cummings be allowed to stay in his post, but this scandal has ripped the mask off this government’s face. It has exposed its true nature – its shamelessness, its arrogance, its deceitfulness, its contempt for “the people” that it claims to champion, the utter cravenness of its ministers.
Cummings himself has displayed not a jot of contrition, though he has built his career on bashing the sort of metropolitan elitism of which his behaviour is a prime example. He seems happy to pose as the “champion of the people” so long as he does not have to live like them. Using pliant journalists on rival papers he has sought to dismiss the revelations in the Guardian and Daily Mirror as “fake news”, though they were manifestly true. He has mocked suggestions he might resign in a manner that suggests the Prime Minister has no say in the matter.
Downing Street, meanwhile, has staunchly defended Cummings in a way it spectacularly failed to defend Professor Neil Ferguson, the former government scientific adviser, for a relatively minor transgression. Our pseudo-Churchillian Prime Minister has let it be known that he backs his aide, though he is too cowardly to say so in person and prefers to let the hapless Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, face the ravening media.
As for the cabinet, not a single member – not even the relatively decent Chancellor, Rishi Sunak – has had the courage to criticise Cummings, though privately some are said to be dismayed. They have dutifully posted supportive tweets, though they have declined to appear on radio or television.
Gove set the suspiciously uniform tone of those tweets by insisting that “caring for your wife and child is not a crime” – seemingly oblivious to the fury that sentiment would inevitably provoke among ordinary people who have been unable to attend the birth of a child, the death of a parent or the funeral of a sibling.
Locked in Downing Street, Johnson seems to have lost his fabled common touch. He seems not to grasp the blazing anger that Cummings’s conduct, and his government’s reaction to it, has unleashed – not just among yesterday’s Remainers but among lifelong Conservative voters and those blue-collar, traditional Labour voters who backed Johnson in such large numbers last December. A snap YouGov poll shows 52 per cent of the general public, including 41 per cent of Tory voters, believe Cummings should go, and only 28 per cent think he should stay.
Johnson is like a man caught in a quicksand. The more he flails, the deeper he is sinking into the morass, squandering public trust and sympathy. The public might forgive his incompetent handling of coronavirus, but not this egregious lying and hypocrisy. Sooner or later he will have to sack Cummings. The longer he dithers the worse he and his government will be damaged.