There’s nothing that consumes Britain’s media and political scene more than the story of an adviser taking down his former boss.
Dominic Cummings’s adventures in May last year crystallised public discontent with the government’s pandemic response and crashed the Tory poll lead. Following his departure from front-line politics in November, government opponents have been hoping that his evidence at the select committee hearings today (26 May) sends that Conservative lead, once again, into a tailspin.
But can Cummings really have that effect?
He isn’t generally well-trusted. A YouGov poll conducted between 19 and 20 May found that just 14 per cent of Britons say they trust what Cummings has to say about how the government handled the coronavirus crisis. This compares to the 75 per cent who do not trust him – an impressive figure given that the public aren’t usually very aware of politicians’ advisers, or even politicians themselves (as Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet can attest to).
Cummings performs poorly here compared to the Prime Minister, who has the confidence of 38 per cent of Britons when it comes to telling the truth about the government's handling of Covid. (Although 55 per cent – including 28 per cent of those that voted Conservative in 2019 – don't trust him either.)
Cummings is now, it seems, a household name. That 89 per cent of Brits can offer an opinion on him at all is impressive in itself, and could mean his words carry sway. But his revelations today won't necessarily cut through just because people have heard of him.
Consider "wallpaper-gate", the scandal over who paid for renovations on the prime minister's Downing Street flat. While it caused outrage among those who follow politics closely, most people didn't care.
Just after the scandal broke, YouGov recorded that, among voters with high political attention, party support shifted from a double-figure Tory lead in mid-April to a five-point Labour lead by 5 May. But people who pay regular attention to politics represent fewer than one in five voters. Among people who don’t follow politics particularly closely, voting intentions either did not change or in some cases actually moved towards the Tories.
Cummings appearing before a select committee may well be too complicated a story to translate into public feeling. Breaking lockdown rules at a time when “we’re all in this together” is the prevailing national spirit has an impact, but exposing a government, one year on, for being second-rate in all things except disorganisation and scandal may not cut through. Cummings is a known figure, and Brits may pay attention to his testimony, but right now I am doubtful as to whether it will change voting intention.
Does that detract from the value of what Cummings says today? Absolutely not. But if you’re a campaigner hoping that in your next door-knocking session voters will be swayed by the latest public musings from this balding Durham lad, you’re likely to be disappointed.