I write this – having escaped from the heat of the Cornish sun – whilst watching Dominic Cummings’ statement on BBC News. It occurs to me that I have never heard his voice, let alone see him providing a statement. The adage of “advisors advise, governors govern”, used to reinforce the divide between the two, can also be applied to aides; odd then, that he should personally defend his actions, and that Boris Johnson would let him.
Such an issue has elicited fury from across every divide. Understandable. Boris’ philippic handling of the situation last night was laconic; provided such little information (attested by the fact Cummings’ statement, plus questions, lasted over an hour).
The speech is emotive. Of course. One must appeal to the better nature of the general public to create the most impact — in a way appealing to the Confucianism belief that humans are fundamentally good and, in this case, forgiving. Constant references are made to the nature and exact details of his young child’s illness, as well as his wife’s.
His justification is propped up with report that his house was being targeted prior to his leaving. Was it believed that the illness part didn’t hold up without another facet to his leaving? Or am I too cynical? He didn’t break the lockdown rules. Is that true? Sure, its important that you weigh up the counter-arguments, but the fact is that the government advice at the time of Cummings’ trip was that people should stay in their primary residence and self-isolate for 14 days if any member of your household has symptoms. Therefore, his circuitous journey of five hours to Durham, plus an extra journey to ‘check he was okay to drive back to London’ (why his wife, who at the point of their leaving was recovered by his own admission, would not drive, I don’t know) broke both of those. Certainly I — a person that does pride himself on taking the time to understand and read extensively on political issues (I’ll contest anyone who says Covid-19 isn’t, at its heart, a political issue. Everything, when it’s reduced down, is a political issue) — did not fully understand that there were so many exceptions to the lockdown rules. However, the wide majority of the public took the government’s word as gospel, so, for them seeing the PM’s advisor worming his way out of it, reinforces the idea of divide. The so-called “Westminster Bubble” coming to the forefront of people’s mind. I can understand the fury of people, who themselves have had similar symptoms to Cummings, and may have a similar family dynamic, have not had either the luxury of heading to a spare cottage on their parent’s farm, nor sought any extra childcare. I’m sure that they would have dreamt of doing the same as Cummings, but didn’t out of principle, or simply out of not having the option.
When arguing against something like this, you need many justifications, hard proof, and rebuttals of reported facts that you know to be false (and more, of course). Cummings has all. But does the fact he can argue the perverse option mean that his actions were right and, crucially, lawful. Anyone can argue a position, but, in most cases, both can’t be right. The weak and juvenile response would be to try and appeal to human nature, arguing the idea that people will understand. Does the argument of personal judgement stand up? If so, that serves to not only weaken central government, but the entire rules, regulations and laws of lockdown.
I empathise partially with his argument and sentiment. No one wants to be ill, especially with a virus that has proved fatal in so many cases. I want to believe that, in his situation, I would not have acted in such a way, but I certainly would have thought about it. Though, like many, I do not have such an option. I question, still, how anyone can dispute how it was anything but an undeniable breaking of the rules in the first instance; though, frankly, it goes beyond the realms of simply lawful and unlawful. It boils down to principles, ideals, and circumstance (both, of a pandemic, and of family). The lack of contrition and apology oddly offends — it was never going to be a resignation – you wouldn’t have accepted journalists questions for that eventuality – but it should’ve been. Out of principle, if not belief. Other ministers that have been caught in similar positions have publicly shamed and then resigned in quick succession. I have little doubt that he acted with good intentions. But I do not think that he was correct in doing so.
Whichever way you look at it, the government has been weakened. The real question is: how much so, and what wider affect will it have? Personally, I truly believe that the government, and Cummings, have hugely misjudged the public mood. I also don’t believe that the kind of quod est necessarium est licitum line of defence was as strong or convincing as Number 10 and Cummings (though they’re one in the same) would’ve wanted. Nor do I believe that this broadcast has stamped out the problem as they likely wished it would. This will rumble on for weeks, overshadowing our current circumstances and deflecting from the government’s handling of the pandemic. The question is whether that distraction will be welcome, helpful, or bad. Details will be poured over. Who knows what conclusions will be drawn. It’s over now; the broadcast that is, not the problem. Do I think that he has appealed to the general public’s good nature and convinced them that he acted lawfully? No.