The Speaker
Thursday, 18 July 2024 – 17:54
Photo by Number 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Why Cummings’ lockdown flouting could prove extremely dangerous for the government

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

“I Don’t Regret It”

On a hazy Monday afternoon, the country witnessed an unprecedented event – albeit in unprecedented times. Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to Boris Johnson, held a press conference in the Downing Street garden to defend his decision to seemingly break lockdown rules in March and April. Rarely before has a non-elected official been given a platform like this one, with Cummings’s only previous media exposure while in role being the answering of shotgun questions on his way to meetings in No.10. After making the eager press wait for half an hour, he conducted an extraordinary conference where he said he held no regrets over his alleged rule-breaking and he refused to resign. A day earlier his boss, the Prime Minister, gave Cummings his backing.

One of British politics oldest conventions says that when an aide becomes the news, they must go. Dominic Cummings, the behind the scenes strategist who masterminded the Brexit Vote Leave campaign and forms much of the policy that affects the whole of the UK has now stumbled into centre stage, met by hostility and outrage. Here is why this could prove to be a perilous moment for Johnson’s government. 

Stay at home: open to interpretation?

Many members of the public (and the journalists present at the conference) seemed not to buy Cummings’s justification of his lockdown defiance. His alibi states that he drove 260 miles in case he needed to seek childcare from his family in Durham. After he and his wife had experienced Coronavirus symptoms, he claims that this was the only option as he would not have wanted to ask any friends in London to expose themselves to the virus in order to care for his child. At the time, the government advice (which he helped to write) stated that individuals should only leave the household for essential supplies or as part of their limited, localised daily exercise.

Before returning from Durham to London, Cummings and his wife decided to go on a drive to test his eyesight. This drive happened to be 30 miles long and conveniently ended up in local beauty spot, Barnard Castle town. Cummings also decided to bring his four-year-old child with him on this eyesight test. This seemed an extremely flimsy justification, with many speculating that the Cummings family simply wanted some fresh air at a nature attraction 30 miles away on a sunny Easter weekend- an act that the government was instructing millions not to do. Cummings tried to describe this as an exceptional circumstance in a weak and naive attempt to justify his rule-breaking. This has caused public outrage, displayed amusingly when a protestor sounded a blaring horn outside Downing Street during Cummings’s opening statement.

On a more serious note, opinion polls reveal that the government’s approval rating has plunged dramatically to -2%, a staggering 20-point nosedive. This is worrying for Johnson, who is obsessed with portraying himself as the head of the “People’s Government”. It could currently be argued that the People and the Government have never been more disconnected – the Cummings drama leads many members of the public to question whether it is “one rule for them, another for us”. It gets even worse for the Prime Minister because he now finds his authority hanging in the balance. If Cummings was able to interpret and bend the lockdown rules, then the population of the UK will feel entitled to do the same. This will increase pressure on an already strained police force; people may try to use a Cummings style justification if questioned over lockdown breaching. This could lead to a series of nasty standoffs and a large increase in people flouting the rules. Boris Johnson’s backing of Cummings may come at the cost of utterly losing control over the country that he governs.

Could the “Red Wall” be rebuilt?

One of the most impressive features of Johnson’s 2019 election win was how he was able to dismantle Labour’s “Red Wall” in Northern England. There is a real risk that recent events could undo his hard work. The Conservatives are keen to recognise that they have only “borrowed” these votes off many people who had always voted Labour. Their loan may be cut short at the next election due to the Prime Minister’s backing of his Chief Advisor. During his flawed and unconvincing opening statement, Cummings described his parents’ vast property which housed his sister’s family and also had a cottage which he stayed in with his family. For someone who prides himself on being able to gauge public mood and response, this move was unwise. Many voters who have “lent” their vote to the Conservatives, from areas where the Red Wall previously stood strong, will be working class and therefore not able to relate to Cummings and his wealthy parents. Even though it may seem small and insignificant, this brief description of his parents’ property may lead to many new working-class Tory voters to see the party as aloof and disconnected. This will not help Cummings gain any sympathy from his party’s new voters. The Conservatives are playing a dangerous game if they allow themselves to be seen as privileged, upper-class elitists who play the game by their own rules. This all plays perfectly into the hands of new Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has had the luxury of being able to sit back and watch the capitulation of the government in the space of a weekend. It will be interesting to see his ability to gauge political rhythm; arguably it would be foolish not to pounce on the situation.

Be careful Boris

The government’s handling of the situation in the immediate aftermath could seal their fate one way or another. With a pandemic response that has been criticized on a global scale, the Conservatives cannot afford to slip up in such a perilous manner. If they can defuse this mini-crisis, they will be able to focus on committing to delivering a much-improved Coronavirus response to claw back approval ratings. Large sections of the public, and several prominent Tory backbenchers, have called for Cummings’s dismissal, though the Prime Minister and a handful of cabinet ministers have voiced their support of Cummings on Twitter. If the government gets this wrong, there could be rumblings amongst new Conservative MPs in the Labour heartlands who will not want to lose their seat so soon. The last thing Boris Johnson needs is a backbench revolt.

Photo Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street under licence (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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