Richard North, 27/05/2020  
 


The Telegraph, no less, is now calling it "the Cummings crisis". There's fame for you, to have a crisis named after you, although it is not perhaps the legacy Johnson's chief aide would have wanted.

Nevertheless, Johnson's cheerleader would really like this to go away, with its editorial declaring: "It's time to move on from the Cummings saga". But, of course, the media isn't going to move on – not for as long as so many issues are left unresolved.

If anything, Cummings's presser has actually stoked up the crisis, now that people have had a chance to study what he said. And bearing in mind that Cummings was reading from a pre-prepared script, the written word is pretty damning. For instance, he writes:
In terms of the rules, I think that the rules make clear that if you're dealing with small children, then that could be, that can be, exceptional circumstances. And I think the situation that I was in was exceptional circumstances. And I think that the way that I dealt with it was the least risk to everybody concerned, if my wife and I had both been unable to look after our four-year-old.
It was reading this that has now convinced me, without a shadow of doubt that Cummings – and his wife, Mary Wakefield – broke the law. And while a number of commentators keep talking about guidelines, we're actually dealing with law - in the form of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.

Cummings, of course, knows this. He refers not to guidelines but to "rules", and he can only mean these Regulations. But he then goes on to make the extraordinary claim that: "I think that the rules make clear that if you're dealing with small children, then that could be, that can be, exceptional circumstances".

To put it bluntly, this is typical Cummings bullshit. That's what he does – he always does this, spraying out volumes of it every time he is trying to demonstrate his innate superiority, delivered with such confidence and authority (some would say arrogance), that few think to challenge it on the fly.

It is exactly what he did when called to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. And it's exactly what he was doing recently when he edited his blog to enable him to claim he had predicted a coronavirus pandemic.

And bullshit Cummings's latest contribution is. The rules don't make anything "clear" about dealing with small children. Children, as such – whether big, small or average – aren't mentioned at all. And then, as to "exceptional circumstances", there simply is no provision for this. The term cannot be found anywhere in the Regulations.

What Cummings had done – probably deliberately – is confuse the term "exceptional circumstances", which isn't in the Regulations, with "reasonable excuse", which is.

As I mentioned yesterday, the way the law is structured is that it imposes an absolute prohibition on people leaving the place where they are living, but it then modifies this with a qualified permission based on the concept of reasonable excuse.

There follows in Regulation 6, a list which includes the one Cummings invoked, seeking access to critical public services such as childcare. That, on the face of it, was his own personal reasonable excuse. However, he then condemns himself with his own words, when he states:
I thought the best thing to do in all the circumstances was to drive to an isolated cottage on my father's farm. At this farm, my parents live in one house. My sister and her two children live in another house, and there was a separate cottage roughly 50 metres away from either of them. My tentative conclusion on the Friday evening was this: if we are both unable to look after our child, then my sister or nieces can look after him. My nieces are 17 and 20. They are old enough to look after him, but also young enough to be in the safest category. And they had extremely kindly volunteered to do so if needed.
By his own account, therefore, Cummings was not seeking access to childcare – not directly. What he was doing was relocating himself and his family 260 miles to another dwelling, in anticipation of the possibility that he might need childcare in the event that both he and his wife became incapacitated, a situation which did not materialise.

Whatever the motivation and the circumstances, not in the most wildest of imaginings can that be regarded as a "reasonable excuse" within the terms of the law. The government is very explicit that moving home is not permitted (pictured).

On that basis, Cummings broke the law. So did Mary Wakefield. Their "exceptional circumstances" do not qualify as a reasonable excuse. They may be mitigation, but mitigation is not innocence. And therein lies the heart of the issue: equality before the law. Cummings, by his actions, demonstrates that he believes he is above the law.

As such, it is unsurprising that Cummings is being hounded by the media. Most of the journalists are not quite sure how and why he broke the law - they are not very bright. But their instinct is right. A very privileged person decided he was above the law and is refusing to resign, As a story, that will run and run. If Johnson wants to stop it, he can fire Cummings.

Specifically, as one might expect, the Guardian is on the case, exploring the inconsistencies between the stories produced by Cummings and his wife.

For instance, Wakefield describes Cummings's "spasms", but fails to mention problems with her husband's eyesight. Yet this was the reason Cummings gave for taking a "test drive" to Barnard Castle, a town almost 30 miles away, before returning to London. He said he had taken his wife and son "for a short drive" on Easter Sunday – Wakefield's birthday – "to see if I could drive safely".

Why, the paper asks, did the couple conclude that the best way to test his eyesight was to take a trip that would have involved using a busy A-road? It also observes that Cummings said the family went to the "outskirts" of Barnard Castle.

But the location where they were seen, next to the River Tees between Ullathorne Rise and Gill Lane, is on the far side of the town from the Cummings family property, and is close to a considerable number of homes. Why, the Guardian wants to know, did they end up there on a drive intended simply to test whether it was safe for him to take the wheel?

So many inconsistencies are emerging that the pressure can only increase. In the event, my guess is that Cummings will have to go. While Johnson's supporters are keen to blame the media for their obsession with the story, trying to dismiss it as a "Westminster bubble" event, YouGov indicates that the public has a different view.

Some 57 percent of its respondents in a recent survey thinks that the media have been "fair" in the way they have reported on Cummings. Only 33 percent fall into the "unfair grouping". As dangerous for the government, we see reports of a "Tory MP revolt". One junior minister has resigned and more than 35 Conservative MPs have called for Cummings to resign.

Then, in a snap poll after Cummings's presser, 63 percent of respondents thought that Johnson should fire his aide, while 80 percent thought he had broken lockdown rules. And, to finish off a bad day for Johnson, in this survey his personal rating has dropped to 37 as against Keir Starmer's 34 percent.

Another poll puts Starmer ahead, with the approval rating for Johnson having slumped into negative figures for the first time since he became PM, at -1 percent, compared with +19 percent immediately before the Cummings story broke and +25 a fortnight ago.

Amid this full spectrum shambles, though, something even more dangerous is evolving. This is a pincer movement between emotionally charged reports of the sacrifices people have made to obey the lockdown, on the one hand, and what might be described as "piss-taking" on the other.

I would not care to predict which will do the most damage but, in combination, they could be fatal to Johnson's credibility, for as long as he keeps Cummings in place.






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