Boris Johnson takes a big risk in tying himself to Dominic Cummings

The Prime Minister is betting hard that the public's anger will fade to nothing.

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Boris Johnson has made one of the boldest calls of his political career: announcing that he will stand by his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings. Though the Prime Minister did not deny that Cummings had made a 250-mile trip from London to Durham while his wife was experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19, or that he had travelled to the nearby town of Barnard Castle while he was there, he said that Cummings had acted as any responsible father would.

The government has opted to avoid the easy way out: for the Prime Minister’s chief strategist to make a brief statement saying that, out of concern for his child, he had made the wrong decision, and to step down, only to return in six months or a year.

Instead, for perhaps the first time in his career, Johnson has opted to look a clear majority of the country – polls showed that a majority of people thought Cummings should step down after the first story saying he had travelled to Durham, let alone before subsequent stories about his activities there or a potential second trip – in the eye and tell them that, no, they can’t have what they want.

Adding to the risk, the government’s line to take on this seems calculated to rub people up the wrong way: by talking up the virtue of Cummings’ decision, it makes it seem as though people who considered acting in a similar way but didn’t are in the wrong.

On Friday, I said that what we didn’t know is how the public would react to the story. We now do: a large majority think that Cummings broke the rules, and that a smaller but still clear majority think that he should resign.

To the flawed extent that we can gauge public opinion in lockdown, it is clear, too, that the public is pretty angry. That Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, felt he had to apologise for defending Cummings is a good indicator of the level of pushback that Tory MPs are getting on the issue, while Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey, cited angry messages from her constituents when she called for Cummings to step down.

What we don’t know is what the long-term consequences will be. What would concern me if I were in Johnson’s shoes is that the row has the potential to permanently alter perceptions of the government. People are not going to still be angry about this story in four and a half years’ time when the next election is held, but their general impression of the government will still be influential. 

It seems to me that the row is changing opinions of the government in two ways. The first, immediately and obviously, is that a critical mass of voters feel that the administration is not “on their side”; that there is one rule for the government and another for the rest of the population.

But perhaps more worryingly for the Conservatives is that when people stop being angry about the story, they may start finding it funny; viewing the government itself as being somewhat ridiculous. Johnson may be sacrificing the most important asset for any government: that it is seen as competent and that, even if voters don’t like the government very much, they can at least respect it.

Johnson is gambling that public anger over the row will fade and be forgotten – that it will have the same limited political afterlife as any number of minor scandals. The risk is that he may, without realising it, have happened upon his own Salisbury moment: a row that left Jeremy Corbyn's personal ratings permanently damaged even after the exact circumstances and nature of the dispute had been forgotten.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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