Andrew's Column: When rule makers are rule breakers
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's closest adviser, is touted to be more influential than most cabinet ministers, and has been described as the most powerful non-elected official in Downing Street for a generation. He and his wife flouted lockdown restriction laws and endangered the lives of others.
Nothing is more corrosive of trust in how we are governed, and in those who govern us, than when rule-makers are caught out as rule-breakers.
That's the issue at the heart of a row that has engulfed the British government for the past few days.
So here's the background: a married couple with a four-year-old son - the wife comes down with signs of coronavirus - the husband is worried that he too might succumb. Who would then look after their little boy?
So despite the 'stay at home' instruction then in place, and strictly in force for those with symptoms, they drive for five hours, from London to Durham in the north of England, to be close to other family members.
Both parents do indeed contract the virus, and the husband becomes seriously unwell though he never needs to be admitted to hospital. But after a couple of weeks, they return to London with their young son and go back to work.
This all happened in late March, when the virus was at its most prevalent in London and when Durham had a much lower incidence rate. The local police were aware at the time of an apparent violation of the emergency regulations and had a word with the family but decided against taking further action. But the story only became public when picked up by a couple of left-leaning daily papers last Friday.
Okay, so it's not exactly a capital offence. No doubt thousands broke the 'stay at home' injunction in one way or another, though broadly most people went along with it. Some were unable to say goodbye to dying parents because of that instruction to remain at home which the family in question chose to ignore. But everyone was keenly aware of the need to halt the pandemic, which has now claimed more than 36,000 British lives.
As you will have guessed, the couple at the heart of this controversy are not an anonymous Mr and Mrs Smith of Acacia Avenue. They are a power couple. He is Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's closest adviser, more influential than most cabinet ministers, who has been described as the most powerful non-elected official in Downing Street for a generation; she is Mary Wakefield, a senior journalist at the weekly political magazine the prime minister used to edit.
Mr Cummings is a svengali, a shadowy figure of huge influence and no obvious charm. He was the brains behind the 'Brexit' victory in the 2016 EU referendum and came up with the winning slogan: 'Take Back Control'. He helped Boris Johnson to strategise the coup within the Conservative party which saw Johnson take over from Theresa May last summer. He was at the heart of Boris Johnson's emphatically successful 'Get Brexit Done' general election campaign in December. A few weeks later, he was the enforcer who managed to get rid of a finance minister, Sajid Javid, who was showing an unhealthy independence of Downing Street.
At the top levels of government, Dominic Cummings is both feared and obeyed: feared because of his political ruthlessness, and obeyed because Cummings is so close to the prime minister, there is no doubt who Johnson will back in any showdown.
So when Cummings' cross-country transgression became public, the sort of misdemeanour that other (lesser) officials have paid for with their careers, Downing Street made out that he had done nothing wrong. Cabinet ministers were prevailed upon to express public support: "caring for your wife and child is not a crime" one tweeted, as if being a good husband and father allows you to break the rules.
Caring for your wife and child is not a crime https://t.co/YCXWhKTq28— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) May 23, 2020
But the public mood is unforgiving. 'There's one rule for Downing Street and another for the rest of us' is the general sentiment amid anger at the arrogance and sense of entitlement that underlies this dismal saga.
Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t. https://t.co/QVkFmKgOsW— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) May 23, 2020
There are suggestions - not so far proven beyond doubt - that Dominic Cummings has committed other breaches of the Lockdown regulations. Some Conservative MPs have broken ranks to demand the adviser's dismissal. One said that the row was "burning through Boris's political capital at a rate that we just can ill afford in the midst of this crisis".
"There cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others", another Conservative MP tweeted. "My inbox is rammed with very angry constituents and I do not blame them. They have made difficult sacrifices over the course of the last 9 weeks."
In spite of the mounting clamour, Boris Johnson publicly declared on Sunday evening that 'in every respect' Cummings had acted 'responsibly, legally and with integrity'. The prime minister was caught in a lose-lose dilemma: sacking the adviser he relies on most would have weakened his authority; fighting to keep him diminishes trust in his leadership.
The row over Dominic Cummings has not abated. Whether he stays or goes, public confidence in the onerous and painful restrictions brought in to limit the pandemic has been damaged. Support for Boris Johnson's handling of the COVID outbreak had been slowly seeping away for a couple of weeks - it's now haemorrhaging rapidly.