Richard North, 25/05/2020  
 


So, those who loathe Johnson will continue to loathe him. His supporters will exult, and continue to support him - and Cummings will stay in post. Nothing has changed, for the time being.

In a sense, though, everything has changed. The headline we see on the front page of the Mail is perhaps the most critical from this newspaper since Johnson assumed office as prime minister. The Rubicon has been crossed.

At a more practical level, there are probably several things to watch for. Firstly, there is obviously discontent within the Conservative parliamentary party. And even if the Mail is exaggerating with this report, there is a situation that needs to be addressed.

Secondly, but probably harder to judge, there will be some resentment in the country at the apparent "one rule for them, one for us" attitude of this government, which may translate into increased reluctance to obey lockdown rules, and more confrontations with the police.

Certainly, that seems to be the view of the police themselves, who are reported as saying that the Cummings controversy will make lockdown "impossible" to enforce.

Thus, senior figures fear that lockdown policing is "dead in the water" and that the public will rely on the "Cummings defence" when challenged, leaving the police with their authority completely undermined.

Johnson's response may also further embolden the opposition, giving Keir Starmer yet more ammunition with which to attack the prime minister, both in parliament when it resumes, and in sympathetic media organs, which will have no hesitation in exploiting any appearance of disarray within the Tory ranks.

Then, overall, this whole episode has had the effect of distracting attention from any number of Covid-related issues, from other political matters and events, the effects of which are difficult to assess at the moment.

The one thing of which we can be certain is that this is an extraordinary situation, where an aide to the prime minister becomes the political story of the day, and has the prime minister personally springing to his defence, in what is quite obviously a display of personal loyalty rather than a clinical assessment of the charges against Cummings.

Such a situation in politics is one I cannot recall, ever. Prime ministers on occasions have in the past risen to the defence of cabinet colleagues, and sometimes put themselves in the line of fire. But there is no instance that I know of where the most senior politician in the country has gone out so far on a limb for a mere aide.

That, in itself, might tell a great deal about the way our politics have developed, if it even needs saying, and of the Rasputin-like grip Cummings seems to have on the prime minister. And one can speculate about the character and the temperament of the prime minister, and his dependence on such a controversial figure.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that the media are equally split on this issue. The Telegraph - so often the cheerleaders for the Johnson fan club, heads its website (at the time of writing) with the headline: "Alarm in Cabinet that Boris Johnson's decision to back Dominic Cummings could cost lives".

This less than unequivocal support illustrates how cabinet colleagues – like the police – have expressed fear that the move risked "seriously undermining" the government's lockdown strategy. Some even suggested the support for Cummings could cost lives because the public will use it as justification for ignoring social distancing.

One Cabinet source has told the Telegraph: "The discussion among Cabinet ministers at the moment is that this will cost lives. People will look at this and decide that if Dom can ignore the rules so can they, and the consequence of that will be that people get infected who would have otherwise stayed at home. This has massively undermined the lockdown message".

Government scientific advisers have apparently gone even further, saying that Johnson has "trashed" the advice they had given him on how to build trust in measures needed to keep coronavirus under control. Needless to say, the Guardian takes a stronger line, focusing on the prime minister and arguing that Johnson, with an unscheduled appearance at the Downing Street daily presser, "has staked his political reputation on saving the career of Cummings".

The paper notes that the prime minister did not deny that Cummings travelled from his parents' farm to Barnard Castle at a time when non-essential journeys were banned, insisting only that he had self-isolated for 14 days.

As one might expect, the Guardian commentariat is in full flow, led by John Crace, who has long shown that he has very little time for the prime minister. He writes:
Boris Johnson is no more than Dominic Cummings's sock-puppet. A fairly shabby one at that. The reality is that without Classic Dom, there could be no Boris. All that Boris really amounts to is a parasitical ball of compromised ambition fuelled by a viral overload of neediness and cowardice. There is no substance or dignity left within the prime minister. His only instinct is his own survival.
Not often does any political commentator (friend or foe) describe the statements of a sitting prime minister as "incoherent drivel", but that is what Crace is doing. In saving Dom – for the time being at least, he writes, "Boris had tossed away the credibility of his own government. He has been stripped bare and exposed as not very bright, lacking in judgment and completely amoral".

Within an hour, Crace concludes, "he had not only defended the indefensible, he had basically told the nation they were free to do as they please. If there is a second coronavirus peak, Boris will have even more blood on his hands".

For sheer hostility, though, there is nothing to beat the Mirror, which has shared with the Guardian the toil of investigating Cummings.

Its front page headlines proclaim: "A cheat and a coward" in very large capitals, with mug shots of Cummings and Johnson. The one is the cheat and the other is the coward. That paper having a "gutless" Johnson saying that it is "OK" for Cummings to flout the rules.

Only the Murdoch press takes a really neutral line, though. The Times offers the fairly anodyne headline: "Cummings acted like any father, insists PM", while The Sun has "Backed – BoJo stands by top aide".

One has to go to the inside pages of The Times to find Clare Foges writing that "the arrogance and hypocrisy of the PM's adviser, and ministers' defence of him, will do lasting damage to this government". The editorial view is that Cummings is "not out of the woods".

And there The Times meets up with the Telegraph which takes a robust line on the affair. Johnson's personal loyalty to Dominic Cummings, it says, "is commendable but is it in the best interests of the country?" The Prime Minister's first duty is to the UK, it asserts, not to the career of his chief adviser.

In the paper's view, Johnson "appears to have gambled mightily" that the central role occupied by Cummings in his government is so important that it offsets the damage it is doing, "which is considerable". The prime minister "risks jeopardising the entire anti-Covid strategy" which, "unquestionably", has been harmed by the way this affair has been handled.

As to whether in fact Cummings did what he is said to have done, and is guilty as not yet charged, seems to have been lost in the noise. But even the Telegraph suggests that there is prima facie evidence that he has broken the rules.

And as long as that is the prevailing impression, there will be public discontent. While there is no closure, the affair will remain in the headlines, drowning out other news. There can be no doubt that the government has suffered lasting harm, and this isn't even over yet.






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