Bank Holiday weekend was explosive for political news with the stories surrounding the Prime Ministers Special Advisor Dominic Cummings [Image above from The Times] and his alleged breaching of lockdown rules.
It started with a joint story from The Guardian and The Mirror newspapers that broke late on Friday evening alleging that Cummings and his family were spotted in Durham on April 12th with the police having previously visited his parents household. It was followed by a whole day of Cummings denying any wrongdoing and government ministers lining up to defend him publicly. Then came the second story from the two papers alleging he was spotted in Barnard Castle on April 12th. When these stories broke, I was furious and the anger I feel is still there in the public.
First of all, the scenes of reporters mobbing his household are ridiculous. I hate seeing doorstepping from journalists like that, I really do. I find it excessive. I get they’re doing a job but at the same time, it is a bit of a joke especially as we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Cummings was right too remind them of social distancing but it is a patronising coming from someone who openly admits to breaching the lockdown rules.
The day after the story broke, the following statement was released by Downing Street…
‘Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for. His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to but separate from his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside. At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported. His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.’
What I found surprising is when he was sent out almost like the sacrificial lamb for slaughter that was the daily briefing, Transport Secretary Grant Schapps kept referring to this as if it was the fact. This was followed by a statement from Cummings himself holding a press conference in the rose garden of downing street followed by a question and answer session with journalists.
The statement itself was extraordinary. Normally, Special Advisors do not hold their press conferences; the exception I can find in the special advisors’ code of conduct (Spad code) is that the Prime Minister; the Minister he is responsible to allowed it. Also, this is Dominic Cummings. He does not do the press and whenever he is approached by them in public he shows himself to be fairly rude. Watching his statement live, there was an odd feeling I could not quite put my finger on. Almost like watching Trump; dismissing the media as false even though one report included an interview with his parents. The media is wrong, herd immunity wasn’t him, it’s fake news…but the statement arguably opened himself up to more problems.
Cummings statement recounted how on the day Boris Johnson announced he had tested positive for coronavirus, he was seen running out of Downing Street after having been phoned by his unwell wife. I remember making a couple of unfair comments that day and I retract them entirely. However, he then stated that he returned to Downing Street later that evening. That is a breach of the stay at home rules right there. He should not have returned to work at that stage, he should’ve stayed at home. That is lockdown breach number one.
I’ll return to his second lockdown breach momentarily but I’ll skip to lockdown breach number three. Once in Durham, he took a day trip to Barnard Castle. That was on April 12th or as he said 15 days after symptoms. The issue lies in the rules again. At the time, we weren’t permitted to excessive travel for exercise; we could not travel anywhere in England for exercise.
Cummings also told us that they did this trip to Barnard Castle to check his eyesight. This opens himself up for trouble with traffic police. It is illegal to drive if you have eyesight issues. I thought that was common sense. The defence from Michael Gove around this was embarrassing as he tried to humour his way through Nick Ferrari’s questioning. Seriously, i thought this was a no brainer, do you really go on a long drive to prove if your eye sight is working? Of course not! It has since become the butt of everyone’s jokes with memes about the Barnard Castle eye test. So, we are to believe then that this trip to Barnard Castle had nothing to do with April 12th being his wife’s birthday?
Speaking of his wife, this episode could have negative implications for her. Maria Wakefield is employed as a deputy editor at The Spectator. She wrote a fairly detailed account of how she and her family dealt with their coronavirus experience. Reading it, the only but I could not get around was the getting down on one knee praying for Boris Johnson. That felt a bit sensationalised. Other than that, the account was fairly believable. It concluded with the family coming out of lockdown in London. That is something we now know to be false. Her article has now been reported to the regulator but could she be sacked for an inaccurate article? Who knows.
Her husbands account also implies that she cannot drive. That is also false according to an article she wrote in 2012. It makes the reasoning for the Barnard Castle trip all the more questionable unless of course she does not have a UK licence. The inaccuracy brings the reliability and credibility of his whole account into question but it is not the only inaccuracy. He claimed that he had predicted a coronavirus pandemic as early as a blog post last year, The post in question surrounded a pandemic breaking out from a lab; something Trump likes to press with his unproven theory that it started in a Wuhan laboratory. However, a fantastic scoop revealed that this post was edited to include coronavirus in the week leading up to April 15th. Coincidental isn’t it that on the week he is recovering and eventually returns to work, he was rewriting his narrative to appear like some prodigal predictor.
With his credibility in question, did he really make the 260 mile trip from North London to Durham for childcare arrangements? The argument would follow that there is no one in London that they could turn to for childcare arrangements if they had become seriously unwell. Potentially, one of the most powerful people in the country could not get childcare?
Lacking adequate childcare, Cummings insisted his actions were within the lockdown restrictions as he cited regulations for childcare in extreme circumstances. The concern for his child’s wellbeing is perfectly understandable but what he cited as his defence was never intended ‘as meaning you could drive hundreds of miles if you can’t find childcare’. That was the view of Labour MP Jess Phillips who campaigned for the clause. She argued that the clause was inserted into legislation to allow ‘people who needed to flee there home because they were suffering violence and abuse’. She conceded the legislation was rushed but it was not intended to be used in the way Cummings interpreted it. At the Press Q and A where he admitted that he did not ask anyone due to the offer from his 17-year-old niece. He did not bother to look for childcare in London Full Fact, the independent fact-checking charity concluded there was nothing in the regulations to prevent family travelling down to him instead of him travelling to them which can be viewed as unnecessary.
Now I’ll turn to the police. Downing Street and Cummings insist that the police never made contact with his family in regards to lockdown breaches. That is something they have consistently denied stating ‘At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported‘. The force in question; Durham Constabulary insisted twice that they did.
They have also been asked to investigate other reported claims that he returned to Durham again. Cummings denied there were other visits in the statement after The Mirror claimed he returned to Durham on April 19th. If evidence were found that there were other trips he could find himself in even more hot water. In effect, he would have been lying which contradicts Article 8 of the Spad code which binds him to ‘the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants’. As it stands they have not but this is one I will be keeping my eyes on especially after more reports coming through from The Times.
Their investigation though was interesting in its conclusions and how it was interpreted in its reporting. The Mirror reported they said Cummings did break lockdown while the BBC and Sky News reported he ‘may have’. That’s confusing. Either he did or he didn’t but the confusion comes from the wording in the statement. From a legal perspective though, I think it wise to rely on the interpretation of someone experienced in law. The Secret Barrister outlined that the police form an opinion if breaches of laws have been made, hence they arrest people ‘on suspicion of’. The ‘might’ in their statement means it was a breach as they said they would have returned him home on the day of the Barnard castle trip.
They did not rule his journey from London to be a breach. However, it may well be. Cummings was accused of being hypocritical last year for claiming EU subsidies for a farm that he co-owned last year. Does he still co-own this farm? There is a site claiming he does and if that is, in fact, the case then this turns into a story of someone travelling to his second home; something that was definitely prohibited in the rules.
The most troubling aspect of this episode is the lack of integrity and an apology from Cummings. He maintains everything he did at all times was reasonable and as such has nothing to apologise for. Consequently, there has been no apology. As far as I’m aware other politicians who are not linked to the Tories have at least issued an apology…
Robert Jenrick was accused of a lockdown breach but at least his reasoning was within the rules and spirit of lockdown; getting medication for his parents. His explanation was plausible and acceptable as it addressed one of the reasonable reasons to leave home, though why he went between two properties I don’t know. That’s the only question mark over his incident but he may soon have bigger fish to fry.
Labour Mp Stephen Kinnock and Tahir Ali have made high profile breaches. Kinnock visited his father for his birthday at a social distance and was publicly warned by the police after positing on Twitter. Given his father is a former Prime Minister he should’ve known better. These are breaches I’ve had to include after arguments with a right-wing Brexit bot accounts saying everyone against Cummings are ‘remoaners’. The revelations about Labour MP Rosie Duffield and Boris Johnsons sister (I know, first his dad wouldn’t listen to him and now his sister) would not help in any of these arguments. Rachel Johnson is no longer an MP anymore but Rosie Duffield is and she did resign the Labour whip after apologising. She did the right thing in resigning after being caught out, did Cummings? No, he did not offer his resignation and had no intention to.
In Scotland, Dr Catherine Calderwood resigned from her position as Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer after it was revealed she had twice visited her second home in Fife within the first few weeks of lockdown. She resigned citing the ‘justifiable focus on my behaviour risks becoming a distraction from the hugely important job‘. That contrasts heavily to what we’ve seen this past week. Back to Westminister, and Professor Neil Ferguson was the highest-profile up until the bank holiday weekend. Prof. Ferguson’s paper had been instrumental in bringing in the lockdown but after it was revealed he had been meeting his secret lover he was forced to resign from SAGE. In the absence of plausible excuses, they had the dignity to own their mistakes and had the integrity to at least offer their resignation. Where is it for Cummings?
In the case of Professor Ferguson, the contrasts in government response with Cummings are unbelievable. Matt Hancock suggested the police should look into the matter when Ferguson’s breach was reported. When it came to Cummings, he defended him to the hilt. Even the Attorney General, Suella Braverman came to his defence before the result of Durham Constabulary’s investigation. For someone who is supposed to have a sharp legal mind and have an unbiased interpretation. By commenting before the results of the Durham investigation, it now brings her position into question and she is facing calls to resign. Who else will Cummings bring down and what makes Cummings so important?
After their public defences, in the long run, this could take a lot of high profile government scalps. In particular, it could take down the Prime Minister.
It was Boris Johnson who brought the former Vote Leave director into Downing Street after succeeding Theresa May last year. Since then, in his position as a senior advisor, he has had an almost unrivalled level of power and influence within government. He caused the rift between Johnson and Sajid Javid by frogmarching one of his aides out of Downing Street under armed guard without the then chancellors knowledge or permission. Javid eventually resigned over Number 10 wanting him to sack his advisors and appoint ones loyal to them. The level of power he has appeared in his statement where he said he makes decisions and does not tell the Prime Minister everything, even going so far as telling officials to keep memos brief. Forgive me for being naïve but I thought an advisor’s job was to advise, not make decisions. What doesn’t he tell the Prime Minister? Does that mean Dominic Cummings only tells the Prime Minister what Dominic Cummings wants him to know? It really does feel like he is acting like a power upon himself.
Outside of government, the only people defending Cummings are almost like cult followers. Arguments with these have been draining but this is not about Brexit. I’ve been told only ‘remonaers’ want him gone. This was a week we’ve seen people complain that the Daily Mail is left-wing for saying he should go when that is what their poll overwhelmingly showed. Yes, you read that right the Daily Mail left-wing; I thought I’d awoken in an alternative universe when I saw it. 45 Tory MP’s who all signed up to deliver Brexit at the election have come out against him (you can’t possibly call them Remoaners) and polls consistently find support for Johnson and his government is failing. Trust in the government has fallen and after the PPE issues, testing target fiasco and they have stopped showing us the international comparison in the daily briefings. Glaringly, The Spectator, the same magazine that his wife works for and Boris Johnson once edited has called for Cummings to go and that Boris Johnson isn’t fit to lead. They are right, Cummings should go!
This isn’t about Brexit though and the question turns to the government and their ability to actually govern. Is he so influential and critically important to the government that it and the Prime Minister that leads it cannot fulfil their roles without him? The buck for any advisor rests with his appointing Minister and in this case, it’s the Prime Minister. If the advisor does something erroneously wrong, they can be easily disposed of and replaced. Even the New York Times are asking why defend him? The Spectator article raised a potential reason for why the government have so vehemently defended him. Do they know that Boris Johnson is not up to the task of leading the country at this time as has been shown by Keir Starmer’s forensic question at PMQs and ‘any concession might topple the entire rickety edifice’. I suspect that to be the case and also feel that the value Johnson places on him come elections is king too.
Without Cummings, Brexit would not have happened If not for his campaigning methods, Leave would not have won and even his biggest backer in that campaign Steve Baker thinks he should quit. In fact, he was the first Tory MP to come out and say so. Without Cummings involved, it is unlikely the Tories would have romped to that 80 seat majority in December. Is it that Johnson hopes when the next election comes around in December 2024 people will have forgotten as The Economist suggest, and Cummings could mastermind another Tory majority? I hope the very real anger does not go away.
Cummings may not care about what looks good as he told reporters outside his home but is the appearance of inequality-one rule for us and another for them-that could have the biggest impact of all. The biggest impact of this has been to break the spirit of lockdown and broken trust with the government. It was feared that lockdown would be harder to police because of the actions of Cummings, that has been proven to be the case as people have used it as an excuse. The UK lockdown was not as strict as other countries, to begin with, and in their defence of the indefensible actions of Cummings, they have allowed it to be undermined.
The sacrifices everyone has made have been chucked down the pan by the government to defend Cummings and since the story broke, they announced countless more measures to ease lockdown in what can only appear to be an attempt to detract the attention from Cummings. Why else would they have announced this week more measures such as the opening of non-essential retail on June 15th, the return of live sport behind closed doors from June 1st (which Matt Hancock could not help himself from celebrating) and push ahead with the reopening of schools despite fears it is ‘too soon‘ the rushed implementation of track and trace not being up to scratch? People who were instructed to shield for 12 weeks can now leave their homes from tomorrow at around 24 hours notice from a press release when everyone was led to believe might not happen until nearer the end of the pandemic. The UK according to The Financial Times has the second highest death rate in the world. The pandemic has not ended. It is still here and this all feels rushed.
After Johnson insisted the British common sense’ is why would they follow rules that have now been seen to have endorsed being broken? That spirit of lockdown, that we were all doing it for the greater good, is broken if images from this weekend are to be believed. The South coastal resorts of Southend, Brighton and Bournemouth have had issues for a couple of weeks with large groups gathering but social media was awash with people gathering in large groups as if lockdown was suddenly over. Professor van Tam urged people this is a dangerous moment and warned ‘Don’t tear the pants out of it, and don’t go further than the guidance actually says’. Basically, don’t take the p***. It appears he does not suffer fools and gave a clear message on what he thought of Cummings.
‘In my opinion, the rules are clear and they have always been clear. In my opinion, they are for the benefit of all. In my opinion, they apply to all.’
Professor Chris Witty and Sir Patrick Vallance were either silenced by Johnson, unwilling to speak their concerns in public (which I can understand given the civil service is meant to be apolitical). They wouldn’t even nod or shake their head as even Laura Kuenssberg was cut off in the briefing from asking a follow-up question.
That is not a good look at all. However, by defending Cummings so publicly and appearing to brush over it, the government have lost control of the messaging and arguably the trust of the public. After this, why would people follow the self-isolation rules if asked to do so by contact tracers? Why would any new arrivals into the UK quarantine? This is the compliance being undermined feared by scientists because of his actions might look like in future. How many more will die as a result of government politicians defending the indefensible and protecting his job?
A part of me while writing this has been thinking back to a quote in the Telegraph from a Cabinet member. This Tory MP said, ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place-public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science. The lockdown will only start coming loose when the public wants it to’. It feels an awful lot like what has transpired since the story broke has entered around shifting the public by thinking one rule for us, one rule for them that the lockdown is coming loose before it is time. That is a theory, I hope I am wrong in but fear I’ll be proven right.
In my last post around the government and coronavirus, I was writing in the hope they would learn lessons from their previous mistakes. After this episode with Cummings, his lack of integrity and the government defending the indefensible as well as the further announcement of easing restrictions despite several scientists on SAGE believing it not yet safe to do so, I fear the second wave is on the way. I hope it isn’t.