Boris Johnson should not give into the opposition/media alliance that is hounding Dominic Cummings.
After day four of the persecution of Dominic Cummings, there is some puzzlement in most media and political circles as to how Boris Johnson’s chief advisor remains in his job.
The affair has been, after all, the kind of perfect storm that might well be expected to have see him off. A population frustrated by spending weeks in Britain’s version of lockdown has been presented with a story that is almost purpose-built to fuel anger and resentment: a man responsible for the rules that have kept you apart from your family, ignored the rules himself. He is not just a hypocrite; he has taken you for a fool. We have all sacrificed to stop the spread of the virus — as he asked us to — but he made no sacrifice, travelling the country to see his family and enjoy country walks.
That narrative has been pushed not only by the Labour Party, as would be expected, but by all political parties and a section of the Tory party itself. It has also been driven relentlessly by the broadcast media and the national and regional press. Even the Church of England has joined in with a Bishop that demanded that he “repent or resign”. There is real relish in these attacks — they smell blood.
Yet Boris Johnson has stood by his man. A politician who has been routinely described as a charlatan who would stop at nothing to further his career and personal ambition, has refused to simply give up an advisor to make the problem go away. For someone who is supposed to be a selfish and untrustworthy chancer, it is a remarkable act of loyalty but of course for his critics there has to be another explanation.
Two have been forthcoming from the alliance that has formed around this issue but neither is very convincing. There is the notion that Cummings must be blackmailing Johnson over something. Then there is the only slightly more serious second suggestion that Johnson is so short of allies and ideas that he simply could not continue in office without Cummings.
The latter has the benefit of fitting into the pre-existing narrative about the 49-year-old from County Durham, that he was the evil mastermind, the brains behind the Leave vote whilst Johnson was the bumbling clown who only stumbled upon leaving the EU as a way of becoming Prime Minister.
There is, of course, a more straightforward explanation: Johnson sees, as many of us do, that Cummings hasn’t actually done anything wrong, he didn’t break any lockdown regulation and feels it would be grossly unfair to sack him. The media coverage has been expansive but has also included lies: most notably the Sunday splashes about a second trip from London to Durham for which there is no evidence. He may very well feel, as some do, that quite simply no-one has the right to judge a man for taking the best decision he could to protect a four-year old child.
The only motivation for a dismissal after such a conclusion would be expedience: to get an end to the hostile coverage and calm public opinion. And this has been the thrust of much media coverage since Cummings’ calm and reasonable explanation of his actions: ‘pressure mounting’, ‘Johnson suffers poll drop’.
But a cost/benefit analysis of such a step would show to the PM that he risks losing the intellectual force behind his agenda simply to buy a few days of peace from an already-hostile media. The next election is in 2024 by which time, how many people will remember why they know where Barnard Castle is? There are rumbles from backbenchers but the government has an 80-seat majority and in any case, a vote of confidence seems such a distant prospect as to be barely worth considering.
Indeed, the PM does not have to look very far ahead to see another storm on the horizon — one far more significant to the future of the country than whether Cummings keeps his job or not. The transition period for leaving the EU fully is due to end on 31 December, unless the UK asks for an extension by 30 June. The history of the Brexit process suggests there will be a concerted attempt next month to force the government into such a request — from the very same alliance of parties, media outlets and churchmen that has had their guns trained on Cummings.
Johnson is surely not naïve enough to think that throwing the meat of Cummings to the pack will do anything other than give heart to those who still linger hopes of frustrating Brexit. In fact, he might very well see this case as a dress-rehearsal for the main show of orchestrated hysteria that awaits.
Still, there is something unusual about this demonstration of loyalty, it goes against the practice of recent governments who have been quite willing to sacrifice people, ministers or advisors, once they fall victim to the mob. One only needs to recall the case of Roger Scruton, thrown off an advisory commission by Theresa May’s government on the basis of a shameful, hit-job piece in the New Statesman, to realise how strong the reflex to dismiss a ‘problem person’ is in British politics.
I may turn out to be mistaken about the motives of Johnson and the government in this case. Perhaps there is a more cynical reasoning, maybe they are just waiting another day or two; there could be more information will appear that will put Cummings in an untenable position, but if that doesn’t happen, I believe that British politics will be the winner with Cummings’ survival.
This is not just because there is a strong case for the Cummings agenda of reform of the Whitehall bureaucracy and change in the operation of many areas of the public sector. Nor is it merely for the fact that Cummings’ approach is tied to Johnson’s call for ‘levelling up’ and transforming the so-called ‘Red Wall’ communities that turned to him just six months ago — even though this is vital for the future of the country.
There are deeper reasons for standing up for Cummings and in fact this affair comes down to one of the most fundamental of political questions: Who governs this country?
The apparently errant tweet from the official Civil Service account attacking the government gave one clue as to what is going on. As did the taunting from Tony Blair’s disgraced former spin doctor Alastair Campbell that his obsessive anti-government grandstanding on twitter is being applauded and encouraged from inside the civil service. The people we pay to be public servants take a commitment to be politically neutral in return for their salaries and power yet since Brexit they have been so confident in their right to rule, regardless of the wishes of the elected government, that even Sir Humphrey would be embarrassed. Now they are waving their partisanship in our faces.
The political press are also behaving as if they have the right not only to scrutinise government and hold it to account but to actually determine what decisions should be taken and who should take them. The pro-Remain press have spent years describing Cummings and anyone else who supports the majority of the public, in backing the independence of the United Kingdom, as extremists whilst promoting the Tory defenders of damaging austerity and the New Labour architects of so many disastrous policies as ‘moderates’ — the same tag which is given to nationalist-separatists who would tear the UK apart. But, never ones to miss out a good witch-hunt, the Daily Mail, have also readily leapt into the two-minutes of hate against the Emmanuel Goldstein of our times.
The Corbyn years have intensified the media’s move from reporter to protagonist in politics. In the absence of an effective opposition party, large sections of the media have taken on that role. This has transformed the relationship between the government and the press and this surely has to change the way in which the relationship is managed. The days when a government could rely on the objectivity of the broadcast media whilst working with favoured partners in the written press are over. There is little real difference in the approach of the BBC, Sky News, ITV and C4 whilst committed Brexiteers have few friends in the newspaper world and Cummings, who has been abrasive and dismissive with the ‘lobby’ even fewer. Until some semblance of political plurality is restored to the media, the government needs to, with a few exceptions, treat them as the opposition.
All elements of this de facto alliance, share one key trait — they all think that they, ‘the people like us’, should be running things. These are the people who have, after all, been running the country since the downfall of Thatcher. From Major to Blair to Brown to Cameron and Clegg and on to May, there has been a continuum in many of the ideas and personnel governing this country and although they had varying degrees of competence, none of them like facing up to their loss of control.
This media-political-civil service de facto alliance has shown its fangs during the Cummings affair but it may well prove to be a paper tiger. If the government stands firm and stands up for its right to govern.
The polls show a significant majority believe that Cummings broke the rules, or at least don’t like what they are hearing about him. But polling shows record low levels of trust in the media and even in the midst of the populist hate campaign against Cummings there have been plenty of voices from the public responding with criticism of the media coverage. During the coronavirus era, the likes of Piers Morgan, Robert Peston, Adam Boulton and Laura Kuenssberg have become hugely divisive figures, with only the latter showing any kind of awareness of how the public might feel or the traditional demand for balance and fairness.
The BBC Newsnight, sermon of the day from Emily Maitlis, displayed a breath-taking lack of interest in objectivity and is a carbon copy of the American partisan approach to news presentation — but Fox News isn’t paid for by a licence fee. To put it mildly, they do not carry the public respect and authority that the great journalists and broadcasters of the past had earnt.
And what of the rest of those lined up against Cummings? If the government cannot bring the civil service to follow even it’s traditional duties, then what hope does it have of transforming and modernising Whitehall? Just as every dynamic company needs to keep its overly-involved HR department in check, so the government needs to make sure that the civil servants know their place. It should not be an impossible task.
And for a little light relief, what about the Church of England? As much as the media have lapped up the perceived added moral value of a denunciation from a vicar or a bishop, they truly are the Liberal Democrats at prayer and just as effective and serious an opponent. Like the twitter pundits, they are barely worth considering.
In the midst of the battle, with Cummings and the PM under constant fire, it may feel like there is an unstoppable power against them — mass media can have that impact. But it is largely an illusionary power, their noise carries no substance beyond mostly manufactured outrage and is backed by no authority. Unlike real witch-hunts, inquisitions such as this one, usually burn out in time.
Beyond the coming days, the Tories would do well to remind themselves that those who think they are the ‘right kind of people’ to govern this country have a habit of losing to them when it comes to voting.
It is vital that those ranged against Cummings are stood up to. Give in to them now and they will be strengthened and back for a repeat show every time they sense weakness. The media do not run the country. It may be hard for supposed populists to be unpopular for a while but strong leaders have to show fortitude and given the tough times that lay ahead, strength will be essential.