Here’s the nub of Boris Johnson’s Dominic Cummings problem: ‘It’s one rule for Dominic Cummings and one rule for the rest of us.’ That’s what the anonymous member of the public who dobbed him in to the cops told the Guardian. The words could have come out of Cummings’ own mouth for they are the standard cry of populist punterhood whenever a politician or celebrity is exposed as a hypocrite or gets special treatment. Cummings understands popular anger at elites better than almost anyone in Westminster. He built a Brexit strategy and election campaign on it, both of which kindled public contempt for privileged Remainers using their wealth and connections to frustrate a democratic decision. Cummings took the party of the One-Rulers and made it a party for The Rest of Us.
The revelation that he decamped to Durham in the middle of lockdown cuts through for just this reason. While Twitter blue-ticks are splendidly obsessed with him, normal people don’t have the first clue who the man is and no awareness of his significance as the Voldemort of the Brexit culture wars. What they will see is a senior Downing Street adviser flouting the very rules his Prime Minister has imposed on the rest of us.
The timeline is complicated but it goes something like this: On March 30, three days after Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid-19, Downing Street said Dominic Cummings was showing symptoms and self-isolating at home. His wife, The Spectator’s Mary Wakefield, penned a piece for the magazine in April which contained the line: ‘After the uncertainty of the bug itself, we emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown’. Only we now know that the family weren’t in London lockdown. Dom was non-dom. He was dommed up instead in Durham, having made the 264-mile trip to his parents’ home.
(Has anyone else noticed how utterly cursed Boris has been by any and all involvement with The Spectator? It got him sacked from Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet, forced to apologise to Liverpool for something he didn’t write, probed by the Old Bill for racial incitement [Taki, natch] and now a cutesy diary feature might cost him the architect of his stonking election victory. The bloke deserves a free subscription at the very least.)
While in Durham, Cummings was spotted by a member of the public in the garden wearing a coat and heavy scarf and listening to ABBA's Dancing Queen. Durham Constabulary say they ‘explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel’. Downing Street says it was ‘essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for’ since his wife had developed symptoms and he was on the verge of doing so too. Cummings adds he ‘believes he behaved reasonably and legally’. (Both he and No. 10 also, curiously, claim the police did not talk to the family.)
Nowhere in the government’s lockdown rules does it mention a travel exemption for childcare purposes. Public Health England’s guidance said that, where one or more members of a household displayed symptoms, ‘household members must stay at home and not leave your house for 14 days’. The guidelines accepted that ‘not all these measures will be possible’ for households with children but stressed it was ‘important’ to ‘keep following this advice to the best of your ability’.
Now ministers are being forced to trot out unconvincing defences of Cummings’ actions. Grant Shapps’ press conference this afternoon was an excruciating exercise in pinhead-dancing. The government’s already murky lockdown advice has been muddied beyond all comprehension. If it was appropriate for Cummings to travel hundreds of miles during lockdown to secure childcare, does that mean everyone else can now do the same? If it was legitimate for the Prime Minister’s adviser to leave his home while symptomatic, is it now okay for the rest of us if we are symptomatic? Instead of admitting that Cummings did the wrong thing, the government is encouraging the rest of the country to do the wrong thing too.
Why are ministers being made to compromise their lockdown message and make chumps of themselves in the process? The anonymous punter got it in one: there is one rule for Cummings and another for the rest of us, and for a reason. Cummings is more than a government adviser; to a large extent, he is the government. He is the strategy man, the policy man, the messaging man, and the operations man. Remove him and you not only deprive a details-light Prime Minister of his details man, you whip away entire floors of government from under the feet of ministers, special advisers and civil servants. Cummings isn’t the Alastair Campbell of this government; he’s the Dick Cheney — a virtual co-Prime Minister.
That is why he gets to disregard the rules the rest of us must obey. We have been confined to our homes, barred from our workplaces, and prohibited from visiting our loved ones because we didn’t deliver Boris Johnson victories in Redcar and Bishop Auckland. The Prime Minister can stand by his man if he wants but let us hear no more talk of out-of-touch elites versus the voters. The voters who put this Prime Minister in power are being kept out of touch with their families while his governing elite gets to set the rules and break them as they choose.