What Dom Has Done
As the scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham continues to dominate the headlines, Isaac Bettridge analyses what this tells us about Cummings, his boss and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
SPAD is an ugly acronym for an ugly phenomenon. With the gradual centralisation of British government since Margaret Thatcher and the consequent side-lining of the cabinet and the civil service, prime ministers have invested ever greater amounts of power in unelected special advisers (hence the term SPADs) who answer only to them- it is impossible to vote them out as they hold no electoral office and Parliament cannot remove them, no matter how noxious they become. Recent history has seen several SPADs assume commanding roles in government: Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell is perhaps the most notorious, but the likes of Cameron’s PR guru Steve Hilton or May’s infamous ‘chiefs’ Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have also wielded great influence over policy (it is widely believed that May’s advisers were crucial in convincing her to call an election in 2017). However, the very thing that makes SPADs powerful- that they operate at the exclusive discretion of the PM- also means that, as Hill and Timothy discovered, they can be removed the second they are no longer an asset, and without any office to fall back on they are cast out into the political wilderness. A SPAD lives only as long as they are useful.
Boris Johnson is a fundamentally weak politician
At least, that’s how it used to be anyway, as with the advent of the Dominic Cummings row, it seems that the servant has become the master. Johnson’s insistence on hanging onto Cummings has caused uproar among those who feel he broke both the law and moral standards, but from a purely political standpoint the decision makes even less sense. Cummings is now a dead weight around the government’s ankle: numerous polls have shown majority support for his removal and, as a direct result of his retention, Johnson’s own approval ratings have fallen below those of Labour leader Keir Starmer, surely an injury for a man so transparently obsessed with popularity. His unshakeable loyalty to his adviser is uncharacteristic of a man who, as David Cameron and two ex-wives can attest, is more than willing to ditch his supposed allies to gain a personal advantage. Cummings’ continual presence in Whitehall has now become an active hindrance to both the PM personally and to his administration generally, tainting their reputation and undermining the crucial public health message at a time when any failure in this matter could cost lives. Yet despite all this, he stays, and not only that but the government has seen fit to change almost all its messaging in order to protect him. Why?
The answer, I believe, is that Boris Johnson is a fundamentally weak politician. A strong Prime Minister, one with their own ideas about governance and with greater confidence in their own capability, would have no qualms about removing any adviser. But Boris Johnson, a lazy and incompetent man whose flashiness and surface-level charisma have long disguised an absence of any genuine ideology or passion beyond his own advancement, understands that his ascension to the top of British politics has been heavily, if not entirely, dependent on Cummings. Classic Dom, as he is known, masterminded the Vote Leave campaign that ended the Cameron era and paved the way for his ascension, having created most of the essential elements such as the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan and that f***ing red bus- then, once Johnson had become PM and brought him on as an aide, pioneered a combative press strategy that blamed MPs and unelected judges for the supposed failure to deliver Brexit that would go on to form the ‘people vs parliament’ message that delivered an 80-seat Tory majority and broke Labour’s ‘Red Wall’. It’s impossible for Johnson to remove Cummings because without him, there is no ‘Boris Johnson’ as we know him today, and to remove him would be somewhat akin to amputating a limb, leaving him weakened, alone and without the man who did most of the hard work of governance that Johnson found less enticing that holidays to Caribbean islands with his fiancee.
This brings us to now, with a government due to enter the next phase of its response at the same time that Cummings’ road trip has drastically undermined public confidence in it. If anything, total lockdown was the easy part- the coming months, in which much of normal life should be restarting, will require careful management and regulation, but most importantly the co-operation of the public in abiding by ever-changing rules and standards. This will be very hard to come by now that the public feel they have been played for fools. The past few months have seen tens of thousands of people dead and millions of people forced to endure the hardship of lost loved ones, unemployment, poverty, domestic abuse and the simple agony of not being able to see those closest to us. However, it now seems that any of us could have done whatever we like the whole time, provided we were friends of Boris Johnson. What a worthless, spineless, selfish band of bastards this government are. Maybe Miriam Margoyles was onto something.