Government advisers exist to act like body armor for politicians, ejected quickly at the first whiff of trouble. Tony Blair dumped Alastair Campbell, his spokesman and consigliere, as a judicial inquiry into the Iraq war hit a fever pitch. Donald Trump binned his political shaman Steve Bannon at the height of a racism scandal. And Boris Johnson has Dominic Cummings. However, the fact that Cummings still has a job, despite blundering into a crisis that has engulfed the U.K. for a week, proves what a different sort of beast he is.
The U.K. has been under lockdown since March 23, at which point the government adopted the slogan “Stay Home, Save Lives.” Citizens were permitted to leave the house to buy food or to briefly exercise; anything more would be an offense punishable with fines. If you had symptoms of the coronavirus, your entire household was to remain at home for 14 days. As per the health secretary, Matt Hancock, “This advice is not a request. It is an instruction.” Grandparents stopped seeing their grandchildren. Parents who became ill had to figure out how to care for their children. People were banned from visiting loved ones in hospital, discouraged from attending their funerals.
So, when a joint investigation by The Guardian and the Daily Mirror revealed that Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown while symptomatic to drive his family from London to his parents’ house 266 miles away, ostensibly for childcare—but where he was also variously spotted visiting tourist attractions, admiring bluebells in the woods, and listening to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in a garden—the public anger was palpable. Here was a man, integral to devising the country’s lockdown message, openly flouting his own rules. Did the prime minister know? Did he approve? Why did none of his story match with the account Cummings’s wife detailed in The Spectator, where she is the commissioning editor? In her piece in the magazine, she said they had stayed in London throughout.
He was also variously spotted visiting tourist attractions, admiring bluebells in the woods, and listening to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
For context, when Neil Ferguson—the professor of epidemiology whose misguided guidance led Britain into lockdown—was caught breaking the rules to meet his married lover, the book was flung at him. His resignation was instant, and Matt Hancock publicly backed any police action that could be taken against him.
But when the Cummings news broke, Boris Johnson announced that Cummings would not be fired for this breach, and that evening footage emerged of Cummings’s own neighbors screaming “hypocrite” at him from their windows. Whoever was in charge of the U.K. Civil Service Twitter account broke ranks to tweet that the debacle was “arrogant and offensive.” The tweet was removed after 10 minutes. J. K. Rowling offered to pay the author a year’s salary if the author were fired. Such was the scale of public fury that even Hugh Grant and Piers Morgan, sworn enemies since the phone-hacking scandal of 2011, found themselves united against Cummings. That’s how big a deal this is.
On Monday, Cummings took the unprecedented step of explaining himself from the 10 Downing Street garden. During his lengthy statement, which he delivered while seated at an outdoor table, he claimed that he needed childcare for his four-year-old (his sister lives nearby), that he had long warned of the specter of the coronavirus (metadata shows that, in fact, he had gone back and added these warnings to old blog posts last month), and that he only made the apparently non-essential hour-long round trip to Barnard Castle, a popular tourist site (with his four-year-old in the back, on his wife’s birthday), because his eyesight may have been damaged by covid-19 and he wanted to see if he could drive safely (which is objectively nuts).
There were no apologies, no regrets, and—despite suggestions from the Durham Police that the trip was a breach of lockdown rules—no resignation. But at least those wishing for a spiritual sequel to Prince Andrew’s berserk “I can’t medically sweat” interview could leave satisfied.
Neil Ferguson—the professor of epidemiology whose guidance led Britain into lockdown—was caught breaking the rules to meet his married lover.
But it’ll take more than this to get rid of Cummings. A Bismarck-obsessed ideologue who moved to post-Soviet Russia after university, Cummings is widely seen as the architect of Brexit’s Vote Leave campaign. In the made-for-TV movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, where he was played with 75 percent too much charisma by Benedict Cumberbatch, he was seen harnessing the complexities of social media to push his simple “Take back control” message. It was he who pushed the idea of proroguing Parliament to scrape Brexit into law. It was he who called for the Civil Service to be staffed by “weirdos and misfits,” then ended up hiring a eugenicist to advise 10 Downing Street. It’s he who has called for the end of the BBC. It’s he who wants the U.K. to build a moon base with Jeff Bezos.
His approach to politics has been labeled “brutalism plus-plus-plus.” He was once dubbed a “career psychopath” by David Cameron. Without his true-believer zeal, Boris Johnson’s leadership would be nothing but an un-ironed shirt and a crap haircut. If he leaves, Brexit as we know it would be in doubt. Cummings is, in short, too big to lose.
At least for now. Boris Johnson has said that he regards this matter as closed, but he seems to be the only one who does. Advisers are supposed to be behind-the-scenes players. They hate to become the story. Dominic Cummings is fine for now. But if we’re still talking about him this time next week, he’s toast.
Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.