The Cummings ScandalA Benchmark for Political Impunity
Three months after his breach of lockdown rules came to light, Hardeep Matharu explores the precedent set by the No 10 chief advisor’s callous hoodwinking of the public – a fundamental degrading of democracy that was missed by the Labour Party at a dangerous cost
The latest in a long line of scandals smacking of incompetence, arrogance and ideology, outrage has swirled around the Government’s utter mishandling of ‘A’ Level exam results. Having been backed into a corner on performing a U-turn by widespread shock at the unfolding fiasco, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has faced calls to resign. The damage, however, was done many months before it was decided that an algorithm should be used to determine the future of thousands of young people.
It took place in the sunshine of the Downing Street Rose Garden on the May Bank Holiday when Dominic Cummings informed the public that he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, expected people to buy this, and then smirked when we had to.
In that bizarre, contemptuous press conference – and the days that followed – the Prime Minister’s chief advisor obliterated the fundamental norms underpinning Britain’s political system and set a dangerous new precedent: that democratic accountability and the rule of law can be thrown under a bus for personal and partisan gain.
Williamson now finds himself with no norms to which consequences will be attached if he does not adhere. If an unelected official already in contempt of Parliament faced no repercussions for breaking the rules and misleading the public during an unprecedented public health crisis, why should a softly-spoken Cabinet Minister who keeps a whip on his desk be rattled?
In an unwritten Constitution such as Britain’s, norms are largely all the political system has to deal with scandals, incompetence and bad faith. The Cummings affair not only stuck two fingers up at these principles, it graffitied all over them. And this vandalism will have far-reaching effects.
For Cummings’ lockdown affair was never simply about Cummings and his faux Machiavellian tendencies. It was never simply about the damage his actions did to public trust around the Coronavirus pandemic. And it was never simply a story of establishment power and the closing of ranks. It was a story about democracy itself – and its vulnerability to those determined to destroy it from within.
Why was Cummings allowed to get away with it?
Protecting Cummings At All Costs
A new benchmark was set in the Downing Street Rose Garden on the afternoon of 25 May and by the extraordinary defence of Cummings that followed.
In a televised account of his actions during lockdown, he told the public that, instead of self-isolating at home after his wife developed Coronavirus symptoms, he drove his family to Durham. He then later drove to Barnard Castle with his wife and son on 12 April – which he forgot to mention was his wife’s birthday – “to see if I could drive safely” as “my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease”.
When asked about this account at the Government’s daily Coronavirus briefing which followed, the Prime Minister reached for a pair of glasses in his pocket before offering: “I have to wear spectacles for the first time in years because of this thing so I think that’s very, very plausible that eyesight can be affected by Coronavirus.”
In a 2014 Daily Mail article, headlined ‘I’m Blind As A Bat’, he told the newspaper he needed glasses to see things around the house.
The police also seemed to have problems seeing things clearly.
When the scandal broke, the Durham force said it had been in touch with Cummings’ family at the time and “reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel”. But, ahead of Cummings’ press conference, the story changed. It then said it had only spoken to Cummings’ father at the time and that it “gave no specific advice on Coronavirus to any members of the family and that Durham Constabulary deemed that no further action was required”.
Later, Durham Police concluded that there might have been a “minor breach” of lockdown regulations but that it would not be taking any action against Cummings retrospectively.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police – which was accused of dragging its heels in investigating breaches of electoral law by Cummings’ Vote Leave group – has not looked into the matter, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) saying that no evidence has been presented to it by police for it to consider.
Former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal is now leading a bid with Hodge Jones and Allen solicitors to bring a potential private prosecution of Cummings for breach of the lockdown rules.
They are doing this because of the ‘Cummings effect’ – the impact the scandal has had on public confidence, including the apparent failure of the authorities to take action. A study published this month by the Lancet medical journal found that “there has been no recovery in confidence in the Government” since Cummings’ lockdown trips came to light.
New witnesses have already come forward as a result of Afzal’s campaign, claiming that they spotted Cummings on an undeclared outing in Durham on 19 April.
“Neither the police nor the CPS appear to have an interest in this important issue of deep public concern,” Afzal said. “It doesn’t fill me with much confidence that they choose to close ranks… You have to ask ‘what do they have to hide and whose side are they on?’”
But why is a citizens’ prosecution of Cummings and the collecting of new evidence as part of a potential private legal case required to keep this issue on the agenda?
Ahead of Cummings’ public address in the Downing Street Rose Garden, the new Labour Leader made clear what he would do if he was Prime Minister.
“He hasn’t sacked Dominic Cummings, he hasn’t called for an investigation and he’s treating the British public with contempt,” Keir Starmer told Sky News. “One rule for the Prime Minister’s advisors, another rule for everybody else. If I were Prime Minister, I would have sacked Cummings and there must now be an investigation into what has happened, but that’s what I would have done.”
Apart from setting out how his leadership would differ from Johnson’s over the Cummings affair, Starmer’s Labour Party did not unequivocally call for the chief advisor to resign or be sacked and no sustained pressure appears to have been applied around this issue since.
Despite a number of Johnson’s own MPs being appalled by Cummings’ behaviour – no doubt having been contacted by devastated constituents, many of whom will have been denied the opportunity of saying goodbye to loved-ones in person – and a strong public feeling that he had broken the rules, the party decided against pushing strongly on it.
In doing so, it seems not to have grasped the much bigger point: the damage that can be inflicted on the British state and the democratic norms underpinning it while Cummings remains in post.
When I asked the Labour Party whether it backed Nazir Afzal’s bid for a private prosecution and if it had any plans to raise the Cummings scandal again, a spokeswoman said that the party had nothing further to add to the comments already made by Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner two weeks ago on fresh claims about Cummings’ movements.
“Dominic Cummings has said that there are photos and data proving that he was in London on 19 April, and the Prime Minister has said that he has seen this evidence,” she said. “The public have a right to know whether the Prime Minister’s chief advisor made a second lockdown-breaching trip to Durham, and it is surely therefore only right that this evidence is produced.”
By seeing this scandal through a single-issue lens, Labour has exhibited a dangerous myopia in underestimating its significance in empowering Cummings and the Vote Leave Government he is running. In turn, his immunity will now embolden Johnson loyalist Gavin Williamson, who will hang on presiding over a brief for which he has no experience or aptitude.
“Cummings’ very appointment showed an utter lack of democratic respect as he’d previously been found in contempt of Parliament, and he’s taken that further at No 10 with his disregard for rules, conventions and the law ever since,” one Labour insider told me. “Keir should certainly keep the heat on Cummings for very good reason: he’s inseparable from Boris, his protector, he’s at the heart of a Government that’s incompetent to the core, and crucially there’s more than a whiff of sleaze about No 10 during COVID now. And Labour needs to make sure that becomes a stench.”
Starmer may well have strategised that it is better to allow the Government’s consistent incompetence to be exposed to voters who will see it for what it is; while others have suggested that the Labour Leader had no desire to go for such a central architect of the Brexit project as Cummings.
But this is not merely about winning votes. What of the damage inflicted – on a human and institutional level – in the meantime?
Secrecy and Brutality Normalised
When lockdown restrictions were lifted in May, many questioned whether it was another cynical ploy by Johnson to deflect attention from the anger around the Cummings affair, rather than it being in the interests of public safety.
In recent weeks, Cummings has carried on unencumbered. His ‘Whitehall Revolution’ – focused on increasing centralisation of power and data in the Cabinet Office under himself and Michael Gove – is well underway. Questions are rightly being asked about why an algorithm was deemed fit to standardise students’ ‘A’ Level results – and where Cummings’ techno-libertarian instincts will end up.
Every day, new stories reveal the ruthlessness and contempt for democracy which has become the new normal, all in the name of a “people’s Government”. The sons of former Russian spies are given seats in the House of Lords despite the threat from Vladimir Putin to the UK highlighted by parliamentarians. A former jockey, with a questionable track record and the wife of a Conservative peer, is appointed to head up a new National Institute for Health Protection, with no explanation as to why. PPE contracts for millions of pounds have been awarded to companies with little experience or credentials, some of which have links to an evangelical sect.
While Cummings relishes cultivating an anti-establishment facade, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. His is the old imperial way – of secrecy, brutality, and a severe contempt for the stupid masses below.
In allowing him to get away with taking the British people for fools, Cummings has played the entire political system. And has freed those intent on destroying the system to wreak more havoc from within.
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