Staff writer Rory Orwell reflects on the recent government scandal regarding Dominic Cummings and public perception of the UK COVID-19 lockdown.
“Whereto I neither oblige the belief of other person, nor overhastily subscribe mine own.” – John Milton, ‘The Roman Era’, ‘History of England’ of 1670.
The simple instruction to “Stay at Home” was a collective imperative, yet was neither absolute nor literal. Some, forced to grapple with this intolerably agonising question of which one, attempted to flee to the countryside. This inequality is what many people now associate with Dominic Cummings.
For as long as he has been a public figure, Mr Cummings has been controversial. He has developed a persona as a creatively destructive operative. Perhaps, in the end, he may prove to be the most inadvertent servant of constitutional reform since Oliver Cromwell. Amidst a ‘reign of terror’ across Whitehall, Mr Cummings eschews the well-established conventions of the establishment. For example, his bizarre quips to the paparazzi (“I think we need PJ Masks on the job. PJ Masks. They’re your guys.”) ignore SPAD protocol.
If anything epitomises this going against the grain, it is the failed prorogation of Parliament last September. Her Majesty was initially obliged to grant the Prime Minister’s request, yet in the end was unsuccessful, as the Supreme Court decided it was justiciable in constitutional law, and therefore “unlawful, void and of no effect”.
In the court of public opinion, Dominic Cummings’ Durham sojourn seems just as justiciable as prorogation was. In criminal law, necessity can be a valid defence. The case for and against Cummings’ resignation is a contest between his personal necessity and our collective narratives. Most of the public feel it wouldn’t seem right for him to continue; approximately 59% of them, according to a snap YouGov poll.
% of Britons who think Dominic Cummings should resign
23 May – 52%
25/26 May – 59%
— YouGov (@YouGov) May 26, 2020
The case against him is not logical or rational from a point of consequentialism: even if his family were fined for embarking upon a walk on the beach, this would not have weakened the public’s conformity to the lockdown. It’s a matter of deontological principle: if we all “bent the rules”, that would leave us more infected. The essence of the crisis necessitated mass conformity and solidarity.
His unprecedented hour-long press conference in the sunlit garden of Number 10 came across as humble and open. He stuttered in answering a range of tough questions about his movements and the reasons for them. It is credible that his COVID-struck family sought to quarantine closer to child care, even if that was 260 miles north of London, and then safely drive back to work.
Yet the headlines imply an arrogant exceptionalism for those in authority who devised the lockdown, and who are therefore not afforded the benefit of the doubt. If he should resign for any reason, it should be because of a lower public perception of his actions. The story has acted as a magnet to the profound pain, strife and sacrifice people have endured.
In Cummings’ case, the exception is not so much his individual family and child care circumstances, but his job as a top government advisor. He is important enough to have contributed to the lockdown, but not so important as to be beyond punishment for not fully following it, even for the best of reasons.
Faith in the distant and opaque Westminster system has worn thin and eroded like an old car tyre. The pandemic has led to a flagging trust in government; No wonder when The Sunday Times confirmed what we suspected with the devastating headline, “Revealed: UK’s lockdown dithering led to worst death toll in Europe”
Amidst the understandable and continual furore, something more significant and important seems to have been overlooked: Mr Cummings said that he had made mistakes in the handling of the crisis in general, whilst denying media reports that he had flirted with the reckless idea of a sacrificial herd immunity of sorts. Perhaps it’s time for Boris Johnson to take back control of Number 10.