A top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got caught taking a lockdown road trip. And somehow, amid the United Kingdom’s still-unfolding coronavirus crisis, it has exploded into an enormous political scandal.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s top adviser and a key Brexit architect, drove 260 miles from London to his parents’ home in Durham at the end of March while the entire United Kingdom was under strict stay-at-home orders.
Cummings said he made the trip because he was worried about childcare for his four-year-old son. His wife was sick with the coronavirus, and he feared he would also become sick with Covid-19 — which, at that point, had spread throughout the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street where Cummings works. Johnson himself announced his diagnosis on March 27, the day Cummings is believed to have made the journey.
Cummings’s indiscretion might have been forgiven by the British public (and tabloid press) if it had ended there. But the scandal got even knottier. Cummings himself came down with the coronavirus at the end of March, and he was later spotted on April 12 with his wife and son at Barnard Castle, about 30 miles away from Durham. He later claimed he’d been having trouble with his vision and needed to take the drive to test his eyesight before making the long drive back to London — which is a totally normal and completely safe way to figure out if you can see.
Britain’s papers broke the story last week of Cummings’s sojourns, and it has since spiraled into a national story that has, according to polls, damaged Johnson’s approval ratings significantly for the first time during the pandemic.
This particular drama lacks many of the tawdry details or shocking malfeasance that make up the juiciest scandals. But it has resonated deeply with a public that’s been ordered to stay at home and follow the rules for two months, as the country struggles to find a way out of lockdown and the coronavirus death toll surpassed 37,000.
But what really supercharged the controversy was Cummings’s defiance when confronted with his wrongdoing, and later Johnson’s repeated defense of his top aide, even as critics from Johnson’s own party call on Cummings to resign.
Johnson has refused to fire Cummings and insists the British public wants to move on from this scandal. “What they want now is for us to focus on them and their needs rather than on a political ding-dong about what one adviser may or may not have done,” Johnson told a parliamentary committee this week.
The Cummings affair has, in lots of ways, become an outlet for a public frustrated with the failures of the British government’s handling of the coronavirus more generally. Cummings has been closely involved in the government’s response to the pandemic.
And Cummings himself is a controversial figure because of his involvement in the Brexit campaign. He’s tried to cultivate an image that he’s something of a political mastermind, smarter than the rest of the people in power. Given that, it isn’t a huge surprise that the public and some politicians would turn on him.
Johnson’s defense of Cummings has clearly metastasized the scandal. It is both confounding, and, for some critics, a reaffirmation of Johnson’s worst impulses: that he cares more about retaining power than about executing it wisely, even during a national emergency.
The question now is how long the Cummings scandal will dominate the news during the pandemic, and whether, and how deeply, it will damage Johnson’s premiership.
A road trip in the time of coronavirus, but only if you’re a top aide to the PM
On March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced nationwide stay-at-home orders. The UK had initially chosen not to lock down instead embracing more moderate restrictions to build herd immunity.
But the government backed away from that plan when it became clear it wasn’t tenable and followed its European neighbors in instituting sweeping lockdown orders.
The government guidelines asked that people remain at their primary residences and only leave for necessary work travel, solo exercise, the purchase of basic necessities like food and medicine, or medical needs, such as donating blood or caring for a vulnerable person. Gatherings of more than two people not part of the same household were also banned.
A few days later, on March 27, Johnson announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and was self-isolating. On that day, British press filmed Cummings running, literally, away from 10 Downing Street, a clip that became something of a joke at the time.
Johnson’s conditioned worsened and he had to be hospitalized, and he later spent a few days in the ICU. He has since recovered and returned to his duties as prime minister, but he was physically absent at the start of April, as the UK’s Covid-19 cases and deaths began to mount.
Some of Johnson’s cabinet also came down with coronavirus symptoms, and 10 Downing Street confirmed Cummings had developed symptoms that weekend. But right before then, on March 27, the same day as Johnson’s diagnosis, Cummings said his wife was ill with Covid-19 symptoms, and he feared what would happen if he and his wife both became sick and who would care for his four-year-old son.
So, Cummings took a 260-mile road trip to his family’s home in Durham. “I was worried that if my wife and I were both seriously ill, possibly hospitalized, there was nobody in London we could reasonably ask to look after our child and expose themselves to Covid,” Cummings said of the situation at a news conference Monday.
Of course, the UK government’s guidance at the time was that people with Covid-19 symptoms stay at home and self-isolate. As the BBC reports, the guidance on children is a bit squishier: The government urged people with children to “keep following this advice to the best of your ability,” but noted that “we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.”
The Durham police were apparently notified of the Cummings’s arrival, and it contacted his parents, who confirmed Cummings was self-isolating there. Cummings was also spotted by a neighbor on his parents’ property in early April, in part because the song “Dancing Queen” by the Swedish pop band Abba was playing really loudly and drew his attention.
“I got the shock of my life, as I looked over to the gates and saw him,” the person said. “There was a child, presumably his little boy, running around in front. I recognized Dominic Cummings, he’s a very distinctive figure.”
But the real kicker came on April 12, when Cummings and his family visited Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Dunham, on a day that also happened to his wife’s birthday. Cummings was seen by another passerby. Two days later, he returned to work at 10 Downing Street.
The British press broke the news of Cummings’s sojourns last week, and he immediately took criticism for having flouted both the lockdown rules and the guidelines for people with Covid-19.
People also pointed out that Cummings’s wife, who’d written about her Covid-19 ordeal in a column for the weekly British magazine the Spectator, had conveniently made it sound as if they had never left London. “After the uncertainty of the bug itself, we emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown,” she wrote.
The hypocrisy of Cummings’s actions was obvious; he defied the very government rules that he’d likely helped craft while everyone else had to obey the restrictions and potentially face fines if they broke the rules.
Other figures have also lost their jobs for similar transgressions: Neil Ferguson, a government medical adviser who helped create the UK’s lockdown, had to resign in May after Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that his “married lover” had visited him in lockdown. And Scotland’s medical officer had to step down after visiting her second home.
But Cummings has shown no remorse about his trip, saying he behaved “reasonably and legally.”
As calls increased for Cummings to step down, Johnson also continued to defend him. At a press conference on Sunday, Johnson said his aide had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity,” and that “any father, any parent, would frankly understand what he did and I certainly do.”
Criticism continued to mount, however. On Monday, Cummings gave a rare press conference in which, somehow, he managed to make the situation so very much worse. “I don’t regret what I did,” Cummings said Monday, “I think reasonable people may well disagree about how I thought about what to do in the circumstances, but I think what I did was actually reasonable in these circumstances.”
Cummings referred to his concerns about his child as a “very complicated, very tricky situation.” But while his parental concerns are legitimate, Cummings’s framing of his situation as unique — when scores of other families also had to deal with childcare concerns as they battled the virus (and still followed the rules) — came off as tone deaf.
Even more bizarre, Cummings defended his trip to Barnard Castle on April 12 by saying he’d done so to test his eyesight, which had been affected by his illness — or as he put it, before risking the 260-mile drive back to London with his child and wife in the car, they just decided to go on a “short drive to see if I could drive safely,” which, dear god.
Cummings’s press conference did little to convince anyone that he hadn’t broken lockdown rules, that he largely felt justified in doing so.
But Johnson has continued to defend Cummings and has kept trying to urge the public and fellow politicians to move on. The UK is rolling out a massive test and trace system this Thursday, and members of Parliament challenged Johnson on how the government would force people to obey the rules if he couldn’t do so in his own government.
Johnson’s opponents have, of course, jumped on the debacle. “The public have sacrificed so much for the health of our nation – which he’s now undermined,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said Thursday. “And sent a message that there’s one rule for them and another for the British people.”
But even members of Johnson’s own party are frustrated with his defense of Cummings. Douglas Ross, a junior Scotland Office Minister in Johnson’s government quit in protest this week, saying he had “constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who did not visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government.”
“I cannot in good faith tell them that they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right,” he added.
More than 40 Conservative members of Parliament have called on Cummings to resign and about two dozen more have criticized Cummings’s actions. The British tabloids, especially those that usually favor Conservatives, have also turned on Cummings.
On Thursday, Durham police said that Cummings had potentially violated the rules, though it would not take retroactive action. Johnson, noting this, told reporters Thursday that the “matter was closed.”
The Cummings scandal could have real consequences
On one level, the Cummings affair is very easy to understand: It’s a visceral reaction to blatant hypocrisy. This is about an official who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, who went about “breaking the spirit and letter of lockdown rules he helped to write,” Guardian columnist Marina Hyde wrote, adding that she guessed he wanted to be a “rule-maker, not a rule-taker,” a dig that references Brexiteers’ critique of the European Union (a message Cummings had a role in shaping).
And that gets at another reason why this scandal has blown up. Cummings is a bit of a strange figure in British politics, a political adviser who has tried to paint himself as an anti-establishment outsider and off-beat mastermind.
What helped Cummings develop that reputation was his involvement in the 2016 “Vote Leave” Brexit campaign, which is how Johnson and Cummings first teamed up. And we know how that all turned out.
Cummings has continued to advise Johnson as prime minister and likely had a big hand in some of the prime minister’s strategy last year of “getting Brexit done,” even it meant threatening a no-deal exit. Of course, Johnson succeeded in getting a deal, and with Cummings’s help, delivered a massive Conservative victory in elections last December, where Conservatives won seats from Labour-strongholds that they once only dreamed about. And Cummings, in his time at 10 Downing Street, has installed loyalists and sidelined rivals. His people, as much as Johnson’s, are in power now, which makes him a bit harder to fire.
So as the UK faces a massive crisis in the coronavirus, Cummings remains Johnson’s most important adviser. The dynamic works: Johnson gets to be the public face, but the hard work of governance was never his thing. Cummings is the details guy, the person who makes it all happen behind the scenes, and presumably is happy to be there.
And Cummings has been deeply involved in the UK’s coronavirus response. He was reportedly an early champion of the “herd immunity” strategy that the UK ultimately abandoned, but the UK lagged on implementing the lockdown and is only now ramping up testing and tracing. It has the highest death toll in Europe, at more than 37,000.
And the UK, still under lockdown, though modified, is, like other places, struggling with the long-term economic consequences of a prolonged shutdown. Many in the business community — the traditional constituency of Conservatives — are concerned about the country’s economic future.
The Cummings affair, then, has become an outlet for a lot of the frustration with the Johnson government and its handling of the pandemic. In taking his 260-mile jaunt, Cummings also has shown that he’s unwilling to join in the national sacrifice that the rest of the public has been asked to make. Johnson, in defending Cummings, has now made his “follow the rules” and “we’ll get through this together” shtick ring hollow.
Johnson’s approval has remained relatively steady throughout the crisis. It’s in part because he’s managed the right message and because he himself was seriously ill with Covid-19, and he appeared genuinely heartfelt about those who helped him survive.
But the Cummings affair has turned a segment of the public against Johnson’s government. One polling firm showed Johnson’s approval rating dropped 20 points. A YouGov poll this week had 71 percent of voters saying Cummings broke lockdown rules, with 59 percent saying he should resign. (And that includes 46 percent of Conservative voters.)
Despite the public outrage, Johnson hasn’t budged. And now, it may be too late. As one former Cabinet minister told Politico: “You either dig in or you don’t. The capital is spent now. If [Johnson] got rid of him he would lose even more capital and he would be weakened. If he got rid of him now the blood would be in the water and the sharks would smell it.”
Maybe this will work: Cummings can be the villain, and the public will be distracted from the bigger coronavirus challenges the country faces.
But perhaps the biggest impact of Cummings’s antics may be how it undermines the lockdown rules already in place. A YouGov poll also found that about 70 percent of people say it will make the government’s job harder when it tries to enforce the restrictions. People traveling to the beach this weekend cited Cummings as a reason why it was fair for them to break lockdown.
“It makes it much harder for the police going forward,” Martin Surl, the top police commissioner for Gloucester, told the BBC on Monday. “This will be quoted back at them time and time again when they try to enforce the new rules.”
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