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Who loves Dom?

May 23rd, 2020

Cummings has burnt too many bridges to survive committing the cardinal British political sin: hypocricy

25 January 2016 is not a date that has gone down in history. Despite that, the events of that day were critical to Britain voting to leave the EU, with all that’s meant since. That morning, Dominic Cummings was summoned to a meeting that was intended to remove him from running the Vote Leave campaign.

The meeting did not turn out as its board intended. Cummings responded by asserting that key senior Vote Leave staff as well as a good deal of the rest of the office, would walk were he sacked; assertions that a few quick phone calls validated. In the face of losing pretty much their whole staff less than five months before the referendum day, they backed down. The rest is well known: the data mining, the social media campaigns, the £350m/week, the signing up of Gove to Leave, and the Boris Johnson – without Cummings at its head, there’s every chance that Leave would have lost (probably not by much but lost all the same).

The crucial point here though is that Cummings needed leverage to see off the coup, in the form of support from his Vote Leave colleagues; support he was confident he would get. It was all very well him being rude to the MPs who were notionally his bosses because ultimately, they didn’t have the power to remove him and once the point had been proven, he could ignore them at will.

This is a lesson he appears to have forgotten. Since ascending the heights of Boris Johnson’s key advisor, he’s retained his legendary rudeness and contempt for norms but without any obvious sign of building up the sort of Praetorian Guard that saved him at Vote Leave. He has a patron, of course – and a very powerful one at that, in the form of the Prime Minister. That, however, may not be enough for at least three reasons.

Firstly, a political patron has to balance the value of retaining their valued adviser against the damage that keeping him does. Johnson’s own political position is strong for now and he won’t be brought down even if he retains Cummings. Doing so, however, would spend valuable political capital with both the public and with MPs; capital the PM might not want to spend.

Secondly, neither the PM nor Cummings seem on top of their game at the moment – perhaps for health reasons. Cummings may well have come up with the “Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives” slogan: it certainly has his feel about it. There would be a deep irony if so. But that apart, the government hasn’t been co-ordinated recently, messages have been mixed, policies have had to be U-turned (the NHS immigrant charges, for example – an obvious bad policy to anyone with any political nous), and the media game is slipping badly. Any Odyssean Project seems still-born. So if he’s not doing much useful, is the pain worth it?

But most of all, Cummings is guilty of that greatest of British sins: hypocrisy. When people are prevented from attending the funerals of loved ones, from meeting critically ill family members, from all sorts of normal interactions in the interests of preserving the nation’s health, he – who quite possibly wrote the slogan that sums up the government’s strategy in eight words – not only didn’t stay home but didn’t stay home when he had Covid-19 symptoms. That kind of hypocrisy is not forgiven by the public.

Nor will forgiveness easily be extended to a protective patron who grants his friends special favours when livelihoods (and indeed lives) are being lost on a great scale. Such matters are not always critical but nor are they necessarily forgotten and they will continue to weigh in the balance.

The only way people usually survive such scandals is if they are effectively unsackable, as Cummings was in January 2016. He no longer has that ultra-loyal bodyguard – and even if he did, he’s in a different position now and is less important to Number 10 than he was to Vote Leave. I don’t see how he survives this. And I don’t see why he should.

David Herdson