The Cummings affair still continues to run with ever more outrage from all sides of the political and social sphere. Europa United contributor John Gloster-Smith discusses the conundrum that the British government now face and the serious offence of thinking that it was acceptable to apply a different set of rules for the elite.
The Cummings affair reached a climax last week when the UK political advisor gave a statement to the press in the Rose Garden of No. 10 Downing Street. While what he said sounded plausible to some it in no way satisfied a deep sense of offence and revulsion in large sections of the British population in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. PM Johnson has supported him, which baffles many people since large sections of his party and very many others across the political spectrum and in the country clearly disagree. Why do this?
Cummings argued at his press conference that he had acted as he did because he thought he had to travel 260 miles to his parents’ property to get childcare in case both parents got sick with Covid-19, which they subsequently did although not it seems severely. The action was a breach of the lockdown injunction to “stay at home”, but Cummings said the rules allowed for people to travel to get childcare in exceptional circumstances. When challenged he said that, while he understood how people felt, he did not regret what he had done. In his eyes he had done nothing wrong.
The reaction both to the news of Cummings’ actions, and his subsequent statement, which was watched by an estimated 5.5 million people, was very strong, a powerful sense of anger and revulsion. Huge numbers had gone to all sorts of lengths to stay at home despite many privations. Why should Cummings be different?
While the views on both sides have been argued over extensively, the hostility to Cummings for very many can be summarised in the words, “One law for the elite, another for the rest”. What Cummings did, without any sense of regret or empathy for others, was offend the British sense of fair play. Cross this strongly entrenched cultural norm at your peril. Cummings sees nothing wrong in what he did because he believes he is entitled to so act. What others have learned is that, for Cummings, the rules are for others, not him.
In so doing, Cummings, who was a leading campaigner for Brexit, has given the lie to populism. The 2016 campaign was in part driven by a powerful undercurrent of hostility to a perceived political elite. Yet once in power, it seems that they are no different. Given the anti-politics mood before the pandemic, this event together with the evident coming together and community-mindedness that has been seen during the pandemic, could perhaps mark a turning point in the life cycle of populism in the UK.
Demanding Cummings’ resignation
Johnson has controversially made it clear that he supports Cummings and believes that what he did was right. In the days after the news of Cummings’ breach of the lockdown broke, there has been a growing revolt in the Conservative Party. Around 100 MPs have either requested that Cummings go or have been critical of him. Given that there is a “payroll vote” of normally loyal MPs who are members of the government, which can be up to about 40% of the Parliamentary party, Johnson has now met with a large bulk of opposition to his support for Cummings. Even some ministers have joined in the criticism.
MPs have been overwhelmed in many cases by a remarkable flood of emails and letters protesting about Cummings. The evidence is that the protest is heartfelt and runs across the political spectrum. Hence many MPs have been obliged to reply with comments critical of Johnson and make their position publicly clear. Needless to say, these Tory MPs have been supported by Opposition MPs, but from Johnson’s point of view what is significant is the party rebellion, which does not augur well for his leadership going forward.
Why is Johnson refusing to let Cummings go?
Since Johnson has defended Cummings, he has been drawn into the row and is using up vital political capital in his defence, capital he can ill-afford to lose since his premiership is already increasingly in question over the poor management of the pandemic and the potential for more unrest as the ensuing economic depression bites hard. One therefore must ask, why is he doing this?
One answer is that Johnson depends on him. No wonder Cummings is likened to Rasputin, the healer monk to whom the ruling Tsar’s family were attached as the rumblings of revolution in Russia drew closer and would sweep them away. Cummings is a highly skilled strategist who engineered both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 General Election victories, in both of which campaigns Johnson was leading. He is now tasked with advising Johnson on his “levelling up” plans to carry out infrastructure and other reforms to benefit the newly-won Tory voters in the “left behind” regions of industrial decline. One might suggest that Johnson has no fixed ideas of his own, being essentially lazy, and simply adjusts according to events. Thus he is reliant on Cummings as his ideas man and “fixer”. He could even be lost without him.
Cummings the genius reformer
A study of Cummings’ ideas, such as in his blog which is not for the faint-hearted, shows that he is brimming with ideas to revolutionise British government, re-structure the civil service, bring in outside experts, spend money in support of science and AI, and ensure that there is a flexible, fast-moving command centre which is well-informed by data and able to take advantage of the latest ideas, innovation and initiatives. Cummings is an elitist, not just because of his own privileged background, where his aristocratic father-in-law appears to be a eugenicist, but also from a belief in cleverness, that opportunities should be made available for clever people, and the not-so-clever masses be controlled.
Thus he holds a lot of contempt for traditional MPs, which does not endear him to such people in the Tory Party, and for “slow moving” civil servants and others in what he sees as the entrenched “establishment”. Cummings is an arrogant and impatient man on a mission, and he believes he is right.
This tendency to alienate Conservatives has come back to bite him. It does not help, for example, to suggest that the powerful right-wing Brexiteer caucus, the European Research group, “should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic,” or that the former party leader Sir Ian Duncan-Smith was “incompetent” or that the former Brexit secretary David Davis was “thick as mince, lazy as a toad, and vain as Narcissus”. No wonder they don’t like him.
The difficulty with such an approach is that it alienates people and Cummings is by no means a politician. Not only that but it is perhaps toxic for the PM to tie himself to this particular mast.
It can be easy to forget that Johnson made potential enemies for himself on his way to power in 2019, as did Cummings. Once he became leader he pushed out much of the left of the party who had opposed May and the Brexiters, a number of whom had the party whip withdrawn, which is expulsion from the parliamentary party. He appointed a largely Vote Leave team from the 2016 referendum to office, a group of very inexperienced people who owed their place to him. The converse is that a lot of potential enemies, those that came back in 2019 after the election, are now on the backbenches and who could make trouble if Johnson gets weaker.
After the election, Cummings established himself at No.10 and asserted an unprecedented control over special advisors who were now made accountable to him and not to the ministers they advise. In so doing, there was a falling out with Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, who resigned rather than accept this arrangement. He now offers alternative policy ideas to Johnson’s new Chancellor Rishi Sunak from the backbenches.
In supporting Cummings, Johnson in turn has weakened his own position. This could get severely tested as this lethal pandemic rolls on, especially as seems likely there is a second major wave, evidence mounts of poor management by Johnson’s government and the economic situation goes from bad to worse.
A potential turning point
Forecasting can be a hazardous business since one can be proved wrong by events. However, commentators were this last week sensing that perhaps something important had shifted in the country at large that could prove seriously costly to the current government.
Opinion polling by YouGov on 27 May has showed a dramatic fall in Johnson’s popularity and support for his policies. 52% think Cummings should resign. 68% thought he broke the lockdown rules. 70% thought that it would now be harder to get lockdown messaging across. Johnson’s ratings as Prime Minister has shifted into negative territory after having high support during the crisis so far.
The protest at Cummings’ behaviour which the Tory MPs reported tells us that probably something is changing in the electorate. It is as though Cummings, and by extension Johnson, has offended middle England who are the usual bedrock of Conservative votes. In the past these shifts have lasted for a generation. Britain’s humiliating departure from the ERM in 1992 by Major ruined the Tories’ reputation for sound economic management from which they did not recover for a long time and it lost them the 1997 election by a landslide. Equally it took the party a long time to recover from being seen as the party of unemployment after the interwar Great Depression.
Those that govern have obligations as well as rights
This time it could be that something similar is happening. Time will tell and it is not clear yet what shape that will take. However, what has been lost with the Cummings Affair is trust. Cummings and Johnson have showed that they are not willing to take responsibility for their conduct and there is a suspicion that they have been less than honest. Trust is essential in a pandemic. Government needs the willing cooperation of the population to enforce control measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Cummings fatally undermined those measures and arguably betrayed that trust.
Leaders of governments, and their senior ministers and officials, have a responsibility to give a lead and set an example, so that others will follow. Being in power in a democracy bestows obligations as well as rights, obligations that others do not have. Essentially Cummings abused his position. It is a classic error of leadership to fail to lead by example. One cannot govern on the principle of one rule for the political elite and another for the masses. That way can lie ruin for a government.