Dominic Cummings’ reputation as a shadowy, powerful figure behind the throne was an irritant for the prime minister before yesterday’s report that he broke lockdown rules; now it could become a serious problem.
Boris Johnson has obviously decided that he is going to try to keep his top adviser. The statement issued this morning begins to resemble a defensible position, after silence from 10 Downing Street overnight, punctuated by confusing snippets from unattributable sources who sounded like Cummings himself.
What is surprising is that Cummings had not got his story straight earlier. He has known for weeks that his trip to Durham, breaking the lockdown guidelines, was likely to become public. Yet the first reactions on his behalf to the report made no reference to the key fact in the statement issued this morning by No 10: that he and his wife and son stayed in a house “near to but separate from” his extended family.
He claims that he went to Durham because his wife was ill with symptoms of coronavirus, and, thinking that he too was likely to become unwell, they would need his four-year-old son to be cared for. As it turned out, they didn’t need his sister to look after him while they stayed in isolation.
This allowed Michael Gove, Cummings’ closest ally at the heart of government, to say: “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime.” Well, the law is complicated and the case is arguable either way, but Cummings was in clear breach of the government’s guidelines, which say that if any member of the household has symptoms of coronavirus, “do not leave your home for any reason”.
For Cummings to keep his place in No 10, when Neil Ferguson, the Sage scientist, and Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish chief medical officer, lost theirs for breaking lockdown guidelines, will look bad. It would make Johnson appear to tolerate one rule for his favourite and another for everyone else.
Hypocrisy may not be a charge that will trouble the prime minister unduly. What ought to worry him is that he will look weak. Already dogged by persistent suggestions that he is still not back to full health after his encounter with the “invisible mugger”, Johnson looks as if he is so dependent on his adviser that he is prepared to bend the rules to keep him.
This is not like Peter Mandelson’s home loan or Cherie Blair’s flats, two media storms that left a lot of wreckage in Westminster without making much impact on the wider public. Everyone has had their life changed by the lockdown, and most people feel that they have made sacrifices for the common good. One thing a lot of people resent is that a minority do not seem to be making the same contribution as they are.
What is more, everyone can understand the risk of people coming from the big city to their area, bringing the infection with them. The one part of the recent change to lockdown rules that was really unpopular was the guidance that people may now drive as far as they like to get exercise.
What is notable about the No 10 statement is that the prime minister seems to recognise that he may not be able to hold the line for Cummings. It says: “Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.” It does not say that the prime minister holds this view.
Johnson is going all out to defend his adviser today, rounding up cabinet ministers to post tweets of support, while preparing to cut him loose if the pressure becomes too great.
Presumably, the prime minister thinks that he can live with being seen as Cummings’ puppet, and that he would be weakened more seriously if Cummings had to go. I don’t know about that: advisers are always replaceable. Cynically, they can always retreat from the front line and come back later. It would be worse for Johnson if the idea of him as a weak prime minister in thrall to his eccentric adviser takes hold.