Resignation precedes resurrection – or can do in political terms, at any rate. Priti Patel was forced to quit in the autumn of 2017. She was back in office within eighteen months, appointed to one the great offices of state – Home Secretary. Amber Rudd’s leaving and return was even quicker. She was out of the Home Office in the spring of 2018 and into Work and Pensions by the autumn – back, like Patel, in Cabinet.
Which helps to explain why we would put a modest bet on Dominic Cummings being with Boris Johnson in Downing Street in the run-up to the 2024 general election – assuming that there isn’t one earlier, and that Johnson himself is still in place.
Not that Cummings shows any sign of going this morning. Should he? The best way of approaching the question is to start with an incontrovertible truth: few come to it with clean hands. Nearly everyone with an interest in politics has a view about him. For many of them, it’s shaped by a vested interest. So let ConservativeHome declare its own take at the start.
Cummings is the great, proven British centre-right referendum winner and election strategist of our time. Which is precisely why the left, the Remainer residue, and Labour are desperate to get him out – and have seized on the tale of his and his family’s Coronavirus departure to Durham.
Whether he is as skilled a non-election and non-referendum government supremo is a different matter. And, by definition, an unproven one, since he has only been in his present post, with a Tory Commons majority in place, for fewer than six months. This site is certainly sceptical of Downing Street’s capacity to wield centralised power, with Ministers chosen on the basis of compliance over competence.
On the Covid controversy, the issues are legal, moral, political – and, right at the start, factual. This is a tale that is still being told. For example, sightings of Cummings are claimed in Barnard Castle in County Durham on April 12, 30 miles from the family home, before his return to London; and in Durham itself on April 19, after it.
As far as we can see, Cummings is specifically denying the second claim, but not the first, which perhaps is covered by a general Downing Street statement: “We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations…from campaigning newspapers.” Maybe Cummings will now achieve the status of Elvis Presley or Lord Lucan, with sightings claimed worldwide. Then there is the mystery of who Durham Police spoke to in his family, if anyone.
But assuming that Cummings and his family self-isolated in Durham – or even if he had contact with them and others – he has a legal defence for his action. The guidance of the time sets out the standard procedure for self-isolation, but adds that “if you are living with children…we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.”
The law itself sets out a list of reasonable excuses for leaving home, and these are not exhaustive. Might Cummings be able to plead such an excuse? Or was there really no-one in London to fall back on for childcare? One blog suggests that a court might take into account “human rights issues”. Oh, the irony: Cummings saved by the ECHR! But in any event, Durham Police say they issued not a charge, but a warning, in line with guidelines.
So much for law. What about morals? Take your pick. One view is that Cummings and his wife were only doing what any parents would do for their child. A contrary one is to assert that he should have been especially careful to set an example – and must go. Another is to say that he’s guilty, but that sacking would be too harsh a punishment.
Next, politics. To date, this has largely been a conflict of Right and Leavers versus the Left and Remainers. The swing voters are Conservative MPs. Many of them hate Cummings, believing that he hates them (which isn’t quite true, at least in every case.) None the less, the pro-Brexit majority doesn’t want the Vote Leavers in Number Ten touched – not with the transition extension decision looming.
And Keir Starmer’s arrival is bolstering internal discipline. Which may explain why Tory MPs are a dog that hasn’t barked. Their main WhatsApp group was very quiet yesterday, and the backbench one only a little noisier. If even David Davis isn’t out and about in public, the Parliamentary Party can live with Cummings, at least for the moment.
Having said that, ConHome finds opinion within the Government machine divided. One senior player laughed away the idea that Cummings might have to resign as absurd. Another said that while he admired him, “he really is, literally, a law unto himself – and this macho culture in Downing Street is part of the reason why social distancing wasn’t practised early on, and so why both he and Prime Minister fell ill.”
Will the voters see it all that way – that there’s “one law for us and another for them”? Is this an “ERM moment”? Perhaps. But then again, there may never have been an ERM moment at all: what did for the Major Government in the polls and at by-elections was the tax rises that followed Britain’s exit from the system.
Political failure in Britain has been defined by events, not advisers. Gordon Brown was done in not by Gillian Duffy, but the crash. Theresa May was felled by her failure to deliver Brexit on March 29 last year. Tony Blair’s legacy was shaped by the Iraq War. Remember: lots of voters have never heard of Cummings, and will see the scrap as a beltway row – not remotely as important as facing two weeks’ quarantine on return from flying off into the sun.
None the less, there is a sting in the tail for the Government. Maybe Cummingsgate will have vanished from sight long before Starmer limbers up for PMQs on Wednesday week. However, it will surely leave a mark on public attitudes to lockdown. Most people won’t trawl through the legal documents. But lots will be hearing what Ministers say on TV or reading what they write on Twitter.
“Caring for your wife and child is not a crime,” Michael Gove, the Government’s most eloquent spokesman, tweeted yesterday. Many will agree – and conclude that if so much, as Ministers suggest, depends on circumstances, nuance, context, and common sense, then they will honour the lockdown more in the breach than the observance.
That would be bad for the rule of law, but not so bad for the condition of livelihoods – or the economy, to use a more formal term. Fifty-three per cent of Brits are frightened of catching the virus, according to YouGov, a total not far below the peak of 61 per cent. This fear is doing more to stymie the economy than any shutdown. Maybe the Cummings affair will succeed in changing public attitudes where the lockdown sceptics are failing.