Dominic Cummings began his statement yesterday by sitting down, in a garden, and continued by reading his words out loud from behind a desk.
While he didn’t go so far as to don a suit and tie for the occasion, he at least discarded the usual scruffy T-shirt for a tidier white shirt, with its sleeves rolled up. He looked like a nervy teacher on the first day of term.
This lecturely style of presentation from Cummings, amidst the greenery and sunshine, somehow bled passion away from the event, and presented an aspect of him that many won’t have seen previously.
Indeed, many people will never have seen him before (and the majority still won’t have seen him at all). But those who had heard rumour of him may have been surprised.
For instead of War Cummings (hunched, baiting, goading and contemptuous), they got Peace Cummings: not exactly wearing his heart on his sleeve, to be sure, but at least with his head firmly screwed on.
He was in the mode that those of us who know him see a lot: analytical, polite, highly intelligent, agile but unyielding – cool rather than chilly. There will now follow a rush from his opponents to pick holes in the tapestry he wove.
Shouldn’t he have told the Prime Minister that he was leaving London? Why test drive for a journey to the capital by motoring to Barnard Castle, rather than simply driving part of the way home?
Wasn’t that trip itself in breach of the lockdown regulations? Why wasn’t the exemption in them that he used publicised by the Government? And so on. But essentially, everything boils down to two contrasting views.
Both turn on an agreed fact: that Cummings is in a comfortable position, because he has family members with an empty property, and a privileged one, because he’s Boris Johnson’s most special adviser.
One take will be that he is using legalistic loopholes to justify exploiting his social advantages, while those same wrinkles in the law weren’t made known to others, who have no bolt-holes to go to anyway.
In short, that this proclaimed anti-establishment firebrand has hypocritically married into the elites, and that it’s one law from him – literally – and another for everyone else.
The other view will be that what we saw today was a resolute and honest man, stepping out from backstage and blinking in the light, striving to describe the trade-offs between work, home, family, time and dashes to hospital.
This perspective understands the downsides that come with his turf as well as the upsides, such as the threats to his family’s safety – and the impossibility of making perfect choices while his wife, his child and Johnson were ill.
You must take your pick between the two, and those who will do so represent the full spectrum of human attitudes and dispositions, or something like it.
At one end are those who have been unable to visit their sick relatives, grieve at family funerals, comfort the dying, and haven’t departed with their sick children for other places. Many of them will have been raging at Cummings.
The rainbow then shifts through the permanently affronted or resentful to Cummings’ Remainer and Labour and Cadwalladresque opponents, who will never forgive him for trouncing them in 2016 and last December…
…And on to his Tory enemies, most of whom he has insulted or bested or both, at one time or another. As we say here at ConservativeHome, few come to Cummings will clean hands.
Our own assessement is that he is a peerless campaign winner – the great British centre-right one of our time – but not yet a deliverer in government.
Indeed, the experience of Coronavirus suggests – now that Red Wall gain triumphalism has been knocked sideways – that his preferred model of wielding centralised power via pliant Ministers doesn’t work.
We’d like to see a more traditional model of strong Cabinet Ministers exercising the freedom to run their own departments, with some policy shifts, too. But these are matters for another time.
As far as yesterday goes, any fair-minded observer would think better of Cummings’ case, both legal and moral, at the end of today’s press conference than he or she may have done at the beginning.
However, the determinants of his fate will ultimately be crudely political, and there are two crucial audiences: Tory MPs, plus party members, and everyone else.
As far as the former are concerned, we suspect that the 1922 Committee Executive, if it meets this week, is unlikely to demand that the Prime Minister dismiss his adviser.
In the absence of new developments or information, we suspect that the temperature among most Conservative MPs will drop, at least for the moment. The number openly calling for Cummings to go is still only about 20.
The public may be a tougher nut to crack. Cummings would not have spoken today, in the wake of Johnson backing him yesterday, with no official inquiry pending, and with the threat from the ’22 remote, without them in mind.
And as we wrote earlier today, Cummings will undoubtedly have been driven to take the gamble of a free-for-all press conference by polling or research which he’s seen that’s bad for him personally.
Will he have turned opinion round? We doubt it. Those who have truly suffered during the lockdown – and there are many such people – are less likely to take a benign view of Cummings than this site.
They might say that if he himself is the victim of a culture of populist revolt, it’s one which he himself has helped to craft. The charge has just enough sting in it to draw blood.
You may counter that there are wider horizans to look for. The best part of a million people were thrown onto the dole last month. Nearly a quarter of employees were furloughed in single a fortnight alone.
Britain is set to borrow more than twice as much as after the crash. The price of lockdown may have been worth paying but the cost is damagingly high – in cancelled operations, domestic abuse, lost schooling, mental health.
Abroad, China is set to swallow up Hong Kong. Here, the Government grapples with the Coronavirus. If you think all this is more important than Cummings, you’re right.
But try telling that to his enemies – let alone some of the media pack who grandstood at today’s event (though all that virtue-signalling will have gone down swimmingly in some quarters).
The bottom line is that most of his foes want him out so that Boris Johnson can be weakened, the Conservatives damaged, the Government’s electoral chances set back and EU transition extended.
They shouldn’t succeed, but they could do. For if those poll numbers don’t move, we think that Cummings may walk. We have few illusions here about British politics. Or human nature.