The damage is Dom: How Dominic Cummings’ actions will never be forgotten
PUBLISHED: 11:44 28 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:44 28 May 2020
However the scandal ends, the harm already done by the great disrupter is irreversible, says JAMES BALL.
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If the Conservative Party had ever been given time to decide whether Dominic Cummings should be essential to their success, they would surely have rejected him. He has never been “one of us”, has never shared their style, and certainly hasn’t ever been accused of being clubbable.
All of that must make a week of senior party figures humiliating themselves and torturing any sense of reason to try to explain away his mistakes all the more galling.
Cummings would not do for Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove or anyone else what they have grudgingly been doing for him – sacrificing their dignity to give him a chance of keeping his job, even after a series of breaches of the lockdown rules and a chaotic initial defence of his behaviour that admitted no wrongdoing.
The series of errors in responding to early allegations he had crossed the country with his wife and child – even as thousands of other families followed the guidance Cummings had helped to draft – eventually led him to Monday’s unprecedented Rose Garden address to explain himself.
Predictably, instead of apologising, admitting mistakes, or even taking a conciliatory tone, Cummings had led Number 10 down a path that led to him asking the nation, on camera, to believe a complex version of events involving a 90-minute road trip with his wife and child to test his eyesight.
And yet even in the middle of a press conference that can only have been called in recognition of his fight for his political life, in which he had a complex story to tell, and questions from the press to come, Cummings took time out to let everyone know he’d seen the coronavirus crisis coming – and to direct us towards his blog. In the internet era, it doesn’t take people long to follow that kind of lead.
Where it took people wasn’t necessarily where Cummings might have wanted.
Even by the time of his Rose Garden address, it had become almost irrelevant whether Cummings remained at the heart of government or was eventually cut loose from Number 10. The lengths the government would go to defend him, the method by which they would do so, and the risks they would take with public trust during a global crisis, all mattered more than the man himself – and said more about his role in shaping the Johnson administration.
In a roundabout way, it’s Cummings’ blogposts that show his value to a Conservative government. They are long, they are often provocative, they draw in a wide range of thinking, and they tend to look to the future. Cummings does not think like either a capital – or small-c conservative. He has no particular respect for the status quo, for existing ways of doing things, and certainly not for the current establishment or machinery of government.
This willingness to reshape or even to smash parts of the machine are what made him the source of such fascination – and of such ire. Cummings was a sincere believer in Brexit, and a key player in helping to win the campaign to deliver it. His methods for doing this infuriated and alienated many of those supposedly on his side, from establishment Conservatives to the European Research Group.
Cummings had built a reputation – deservedly or otherwise – not just as Johnson’s brain, but also his impetus. While Johnson, like Cameron before him, always gives the impression of regarding the office of prime minister as a goal in itself, a trophy to add to the pile, Cummings is a man who wants to use government to do things, to change things.
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Depending on your point of view that makes him interesting, impressive, terrifying, or repellent – but not dull. Cummings was the man who wanted “weirdos”, who had the agenda to actually change how government works. For many Brexiteers, he served as a symbol not just that the government would actually deliver Brexit, but that he would make it mean something like what they voted for.
These were Cummings two great strengths: as the strategist of the victorious Brexit campaign, and a strategist of the 2019 election that delivered a majority of 80, he was a man who understood the public mood of Britain. And as his blog would evidence, he was an unconventional, original thinker, who could change the country.
In one weekend, Cummings has shredded both of his strongest cards. Most obviously in tatters is his image as a man with the finger on the pulse of the nation, especially the C2 Brexit supporters the Conservatives won over in their thousands to create a “blue wall” of new Conservative seats in the north of England.
By becoming the newest face of the oldest Conservative trope of all – and the most damaging to the party – that it is “one rule for them, one rule for us”, Cummings has perhaps forever devalued his use as a man supposedly able to reach where Conservatives can’t.
But the more subtle damage comes from that glancing reference to his blogpost, where Cummings couldn’t resist pointing the world towards the ‘fact’ that rather than being a lockdown sceptic, he’d warned the world of the dangers of pandemics a year ago.
Doing this would not, in reality, be an impressive feat: the UK’s national risk register has placed pandemic at the top of its risks for more than a decade, so Cummings’ brag in practice was little more than saying he was in line with conventional wisdom.
But the post he referenced was, in fact, largely about the risks of bio-weapons escaping their labs – with a glancing reference to SARS coronavirus. The issue was that online detectives quickly saw that the reference had been added within the last month. Further investigation showed it was in fact added the day after Cummings returned to London from his Durham sojourn. A day later, Number 10 confirmed an edit had indeed taken place.
With all the brilliance and flair of a Scooby Doo villain, Cummings had tweaked a blogpost to make himself appear slightly cleverer, or more foresighted than he was. While he would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for meddling tweeters – or the existence of online internet archives – it was such a characteristically needless own-goal among others, that it gives reason for examination.
Cummings is no longer an infallible assessor of the public mood. The blogposts he has built his reputation on are now in play, too – how much else has been tweaked? Are they really all that insightful? Have we confused word count with depth?
More fundamentally, the question now is what is Dominic Cummings actually for? Boris Johnson is not inheriting the country he thought he was: the next decade will be defined by tackling coronavirus and then dealing with its aftermath. Grand plans are now fit only for the bottom drawer, to gather dust.
Culture wars don’t work on viruses. No-one wants to rebuild a ship in the middle of a storm. Even people’s Brexit vote matters far less than it used to – a plurality of Leave voters agree Cummings should go for his lockdown breaches.
Cummings wasn’t brought to account just by the media, or by the elites, but by his father’s neighbour and a retired geography teacher. Instinctively he dragged first himself and then the machinery of government into a Brexit-style culture war to defend his infallibility.
Instead, he’s demonstrated his hollowness in this new world. Dominic Cummings the man can stay in Number 10 or never cross its threshold again. Dominic Cummings the myth is already done for either way.
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