If Dominic Cummings were not Dominic Cummings, then Dominic Cummings would have already been sacked. Such is the reality of the Prime Minister’s decision to stand by his top advisor.
In what is being portrayed as yet another conflict between the baying bloodhounds of the establishment media and the valiant servants of the people, the real casualties will be those who take Johnson’s defence of Cummings as evidence of his innocence. The reality, however, is far more cynical.
Cummings has made a name for himself, not only for his prickly and derisive character, but more importantly for his exceptional capabilities as a political strategist. Following his successful involvement in the Brexit referendum and 2019 election, Cummings has demonstrated a powerful understanding of how politics appears to non-political people, coining key government phrases such as ‘take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’.
Yet the so-called necessity of driving to his parent’s home in Durham has left many aghast at his lack of sensitivity towards public perception. The circumstances of Cummings’ situation, despite his insistence, were not unique. Members of the public are now coming forward with stories of their own, where they too suffered in their duty of caring for their children, whilst suffering from symptoms of the virus. That someone as high up in government as Cummings should be unable to find adequate support or resources in London is too difficult for many to believe.
Yet what is most striking about this scenario is not simply Cummings’ decision, but the wider political context to which he is being compared. Many comparisons will now have been made between Cummings and the government’s ex scientific advisor, Neil Ferguson. Ferguson was found in breach of lockdown rules after having scandalously met with his lover, a married woman, in his own home. Cummings’ case is clearly not comparative; Ferguson broke social distancing rules for pleasure, whereas Cummings was only protecting his son.
Likewise, Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s ex chief medical officer, may also appear a telling comparison to Cummings’ breach of lockdown etiquette. Calderwood was found in breach of lockdown rules by visiting her second home twice, leading to her voluntary resignation for the sake of public relations and health. Yet Cummings’ motivations were nowhere near as frivolous as those of Calderwood.
Despite the obvious differences, what truly distinguishes these cases from that of Cummings’ is not the severity of the crime, but the esteemed value of the individual. At a time of national crisis, it is more or less assumed that governments should do whatever is necessary to maintain the support and the trust of their citizens. Yet Cummings is simply too important, too indispensable an advisor to Johnson for him to ever consider parting ways with, no matter what the political cost. What truly distinguishes Calderwood and Ferguson from Cummings, is that they are replaceable, whereas Cummings is not.
The PM was willing to let Ferguson go because the value of his advice was outweighed by the value of public health. Nicola Sturgeon was willing to let Calderwood go because the value of her advice was likewise outweighed by the consequences for public health and for the government’s reputation. Yet for Johnson, the potential damage to public health just isn’t quite valuable enough. In this case, the value of one man has overruled the value of public health.