Cummings’ Cock-Up: Classic Dom!  

29 May 2020

DRD Analyst Bella Soames asks what the long-term consequences of Dominic Cummings’ ill-advised trip to Barnard Castle will be for the Government.

In Season 3 of The Thick of It, the profane anti-hero Malcolm Tucker infamously declares a “f****** Lockdown” in the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSaC). Tucker’s is an attempt to quash proliferating rumours of a leadership challenge by the erstwhile Minister Nicola Murray – not halt the spread of a pandemic. But, in aftermath of the Prime Minister’s announcement of UK-wide Lockdown on March 23, his words were used in BBC advertising to reinforce the Government’s key message: Stay At Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives.

Nine weeks on, the man on whom Malcolm Tucker was based – Tony Blair’s former Communications Director Alastair Campbell – along with a Tory minister, 40 backbenchers, several Bishops, Emily Maitlis and scores of others – if the polling is anything to go by – have called for the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser (and architect of the Government’s messaging campaign on Covid-19), Dominic Cummings, to be sacked.

Much ink has been spilt this week on the semantics of whether Cummings’ activities in and around the North of England in mid-April broke the lockdown that he had been so instrumental in implementing; not enough, incidentally, on his flagrant flouting of the Highway Code. Nonetheless, for the time at least, it looks as though he has survived.

In doing so, Cummings has evaded the fate that has befallen over-mighty advisers in the past – something Campbell knows firsthand. He, like Steve Hilton – David Cameron’s close friend, Strategy Director and infamously, the “Blue-Sky Thinker” on whom Malcolm Tucker’s arch-nemesis Steve Fleming is based – became too controversial. History dictates that if the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go. Not least if the story gets close to dominating more than one news cycle; spreads beyond the Westminster coterie; and damages public trust in the Government at a moment where said trust is inextricably linked to public health.

Dominic Cummings’ power is unrivaled in Downing Street; both Cameron and Blair had other powerful aides as a counterbalance to Campbell and Hilton. Cummings is the lynch pin of a wider operation – one that existed prior to his relationship with the Prime Minister, and one that has outlived the campaign it was created to serve: Vote Leave – veterans of which now abound in Downing Street. Consequently, one key thread in the saturated Cummings narrative is the extent to which the functioning of the entire Downing Street operation is reliant on him. Johnson has expended vast political capital ensuring Cummings remains in place, and commentators have been quick to point out that a Prime Minister so utterly dependent on one man may not be up for the job himself.

However, the Dom/Boris psychodrama aside, more interesting is what Cummings’ actions mean for the whole Government going forward. This Vote Leave Government’s modus operandi – until its trite slogan was superseded by other, more urgent messages – was to Get Brexit Done; a somewhat pyrrhic victory they celebrated at the end of January, as Covid-19 was already creeping across the globe – scrambling political norms at every turn.

Given the likely condemnation the Government looks set to receive for its handling of this crisis – it is, at this point, clear that fatal errors have been made – the ongoing refusal to countenance an extension to the Brexit transition period is unsurprising. This month is crunch time for a deal: the European Council meets on 18 June and the Prime Minister is due to fly to Brussels to meet with EU leaders. Despite the customary No Deal bluster from Chief Negotiator David Frost, the likely outcome – a short, technical extension on the basis of disruption caused by a global pandemic – is unlikely to do too much reputational harm to the Government, especially given the Prime Minister’s recent stint in an ICU ward with Covid-19.

However, since the Election, the Government’s promise to Get Brexit Done (GBD) has been tied – ironically by virtue of the efficacy of Cummings’ own messaging – inextricably to another promise: the so-called “Levelling Up” agenda. This was the ticket on which Johnson bulldozed through Labour’s Red Wall; the ticket on which hundreds of thousands of first-time Tory voters lent (in Johnson’s own words) him – and his party – their vote. Even before Dominic Cummings decided to test his eye-sight with a jaunt to Barnard Castle, the Government was struggling to reconcile an economic downturn; subsequent job losses; and the wider ramifications of the lockdown – it is, remember, the Workington Man, not a member of the North London liberal elite – who will be risking his life by returning to work in the coming months – with the promises they made in December to those in traditionally Labour-voting seats. The Government was always going to face the problem of being able to deliver for those whose vote it had won – and it is likely they would have struggled to do so, even before Covid-19 delivered such an overwhelming blow to its agenda. But, Cummings’ actions (and the Government’s response to them) have exploded his carefully constructed narrative of “out of touch Westminster elites” and found it wanting; it is not one the Conservatives will be able to use again in a hurry.

And what of Labour? Keir Starmer has not overtly called for Cummings’ resignation; he’s allowed the Conservative Party to implode on its own this week. With Parliament in Recess, there has been no chance to face Johnson at the Dispatch Box – though no doubt he will be looking to land a blow at PMQs next week. This week, Labour has quietly elected their new General Secretary, David Evans – an ally of Starmer. The Party is beginning to feel like a newly coiled spring; no doubt Starmer, too, has spotted a chink in the Blue Wall – the question is when he will choose to exploit it.

The irony is clear – the Government did Get Brexit Done, is likely to seek – if any – only a technical delay to the transition period, and Cummings is still in post. However, the damage will surely come further down the track: a public enquiry; a likely recession and failure to deliver on their promises to voters – the electoral fallout of all of which will be sharpened by the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister’s most trusted adviser during a time of national crisis. Bad news for the Prime Minister – but promising for the writer of The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci – as if he didn’t have enough material to work with already.

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