We're closing 2020 by republishing our ten most-read articles of the year. Here's No. 3: Alex Massie's article from May on the Cummings' imbroglio
Most aspects of this present emergency are complex and resist easy solutions. Only a handful are elementary but one of these, and quite obviously so, is the Dominic Cummings affair. He must go and he must go now. There is no alternative, no other way out, no means by which this ship can be saved. The only question is the number of casualties Cummings will take with him.
Judged by the cabinet’s performance on social media this weekend, the answer to that question is also simple: all of them. It cannot be stressed too often that the government’s authority during this crisis is moral much more than it is legal. The lockdown measures were presented as a great national collective endeavour and they were accepted by the public on those terms too. Now it seems they were optional so long as, that is, you have the correct connections.
Advisors are, by definition, disposable. When they become the story, you cut them loose. That is the rule and it exists for a very good reason. Otherwise, attention soon shifts from the advisor to their masters. Right now, the government appears to believe Cummings is indispensable and, consequently, more important than the coherence and credibility of the government’s own messaging. That is quite a conclusion to reach and one unlikely to be shared by the general public.
This government now suffers from a credibility gap and the problem with such things is that, once opened and apparent, these gaps never close. The longer Cummings remains in post, the surer it is that the government will become, at best, a laughing stock.
It doesn’t even matter if what he did was appropriate or sensible or a reasonable means by which an awkward or complicated situation might best be managed. All that could be true and it wouldn’t change a thing. Perception is sometimes more important and here the perception is that there is one set of rules for government insiders and another, quite different, set of rules for everyone else. That is not just the perception, either, for it appears to be the reality too and will remain so, and be understood as such, for as long as Dominic Cummings remains in post. You may sympathise with his predicament – an unwell wife, a small child – all you like and it doesn’t change a thing.
Cabinet ministers, mysteriously, are setting fire to their own credibility and authority in defending Cummings. There are millions of people across the country who have made considerable sacrifices, borne significant hardship, during this lockdown. They have done so for the greater good, recognising that they must do their little bit as part of a much greater endeavour. Weddings have been postponed; funerals have been left unattended; families have been separated. Little of this experience has been easy and much of it has been hard.
It is baffling that the government appears unable to see the damage this story will do to its already rocky reputation. Cummings’s judgement is one thing – and in the grander scheme of things, neither here nor there – but the longer this story rumbles on so the surer it is that attention will switch to the man who hired him. The point of a human shield is that you must be prepared to lose them if that proves necessary and this is something even Boris Johnson must be capable of grasping. It is his judgement that is now the issue.
The suspicion remains that somewhere, deep in their hearts, the cabinet’s collective reaction to this scandal – for such it is – is predicated on a still darker appreciation of an unwelcome political reality. Namely that the Prime Minister, whatever his other talents, is not actually up to the job of running the country in a moment such as this. I suspect they know this too and this leads them to a situation in which they decline to concede anything for fear that a single concession might topple the entire rickety edifice.
Perhaps I am mistaken about that but I can see no other logical explanation for the manner in which the government has reacted to this story. There is an old rule in crisis management stating that you should always do quickly what you will be forced to do eventually anyway. That means sacking Cummings now and it is astonishing that this appears beyond Downing Street.
You cannot – and again, this is elementary – run this crisis on a 'do as I say, not as I do' basis. And yet that is what the country is now expected to swallow. It is madness and a blunder of career-defining, perhaps even career-ruining, proportions.
A joke, then, albeit not an especially amusing one. Surely someone in Downing Street can appreciate this? This is a shipwreck and all the smart people who say this will blow over or fail to 'cut through' with the public are, I think, sorely mistaken. This is not a difficult story to understand, which is why it is so very powerful.
Again, and above all, this is a moral matter not a legal one and, by virtue of that, a much bigger and more profound affair. The Prime Minister has a simple choice: cut Dominic Cummings loose or be dragged down with him. This ought to be a pretty easy decision.