Danny Kruger, formerly Johnson’s political secretary and now the MP for Devizes, has – perhaps inadvertently – done the country some small service. In a note sent to newly-elected Tory MPs, Mr Kruger has reportedly advised his colleagues that ‘calling for Dominic Cummings to go is basically declaring no confidence in [the] prime minister.’
Well, yes, indeed. That is the point.
Because, in the end, this is not a story about Dominic Cummings but, rather, one about the Prime Minister. Even if we concede the possibility that he has not fully recovered from his own recent illness and, by making that concession, are tempted to afford him a greater measure of the benefit of the doubt than is traditionally granted to prime ministers, it remains mightily difficult to construct a coherent defence of the Prime Minister’s recent actions.
There is little escaping an obvious reality: this is a prime minister without clothes. The country can see this, even if cabinet ministers and Tory MPs pretend not to. He is what he is and he is not up to the job. In sunnier times this might not matter so very much but these are not the best of times and, right now, a significant portion of the Prime Minister’s responsibilities are wrapped up in his ability to inspire confidence. He is the captain of the ship and voters are entitled to think he is paying attention.
No such reassurance has been forthcoming. On the contrary, the manner in which the Prime Minister has sought to dismiss any and all concerns about Cummings’s behaviour has further undermined already fragile confidence in his government’s handling of this crisis. There is nothing to see here and the little people should know it is time to ‘move on’.
The prime minister should really watch his tone. His government’s response has turned a story into a scandal. A better, more empathetic, Downing Street regime would have appreciated the need for contrition at this moment. Instead the government has doubled-down on arrogant dismissal. As is so often the case, a notional demonstration of strength and resolve actually reveals the deep weaknesses at the heart of this government. It has a majority in the House of Commons but public confidence is palpably waning.
Again, Mr Kruger unwittingly shows us how. In his note to colleagues, he argues that ‘BJ and DC together are why we won the 2019 election and them together is the only way to GBD [Get Brexit Done], level up the regions and fix Whitehall - the only things which will win us the next election too. An arguable minor infraction of lockdown rules is totally secondary to that.’
But no mere advisor should ever be thought indispensable and any prime minister so wholly dependent on a single advisor, no matter how brilliant he or she may be, is a weak one. If Boris Johnson cannot function without Cummings he is not qualified to be prime minister. The price of defending Cummings is admitting Johnson’s inadequacy.
So treating the media with contempt is one thing but treating the public with an equal measure of lofty scorn is quite another. This, mystifyingly, is now the government’s preferred course of action. And this leads to some truly risible positions. Thus, Michael Gove tells LBC radio that, why, yes of course he too has hopped in his car to test his eyesight as though this was a perfectly normal thing to do and the only surprise, really, is that some people don’t think this entirely reasonable behaviour. The spectacle of intelligent people deliberately peddling nonsense is often aggravating but it’s rarely as enraging as it is now.
We now enjoy a situation in which the Prime Minister’s approval ratings appear to be correlated with his appearances in public. The more often he is seen, the lower his ratings go. That is both intolerable and unsustainable. Yesterday’s appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee once again revealed a prime minister painfully out of his depth.
That was bad enough but the situation was made worse by Johnson’s obvious impatience with the idea he appear before the committee at all. ‘The trouble is’ he whined, ‘it does take a huge amount of sherpa time, of preparation time’. Well, one can see why and how this might inconvenience the Prime Minister while also holding to the view that if the Prime Minister believes it’s a bore to be asked questions about his own government’s policies then perhaps he might rethink his desire to be prime minister. Such scrutiny, however tiresome it may be, has generally been considered part of the job.
The Prime Minister’s defenders argue he cannot function without Dominic Cummings. Perhaps this is the case but it is not obvious he can function with him either. I do not, in truth, know if this is a Black Wednesday or Poll Tax moment for this government but the mere fact those comparisons are now being made is another data point supporting the proposition that Johnson’s government is in deep trouble.
No matter how sympathetic one might be to the difficulties of government during an emergency there is now little opportunity to evade the fact that this government’s handling of the crisis has not been impressive. That is partly a matter of policy failure – for which blame can be shared by any number of actors – and partly a failure of communications, for which responsibility begins at the very top.
Public confidence in the government is not the same as liking the government. It is possible to dislike a government while thinking it broadly competent. I have every sympathy for the predicament in which Mr Cummings found himself and I suspect many voters might, had they faced a comparable situation, have liked to behave as he did. But many voters did face similar problems and they did not act as he did. They stayed at home because that is what the government had told them to do. No defence of Mr Cummings can defeat this obvious truth. From which it follows that even if the country one day agrees to ‘move on’ it will not forget. And nor, frankly, should it.