Conservatives weigh long-term cost of Cummings controversy

Dominic Cummings on Friday emerged from a week of torrid headlines and toe-curling press conferences with his job as the prime minister’s top adviser intact, an apparently immovable and indispensable figure at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation.

The short-term cost to Mr Johnson of Mr Cummings’ ill-fated journey from London to County Durham, in the north-east of England, during the coronavirus lockdown has been obvious: public anger, media mockery and the biggest slump in a Conservative opinion poll lead for a decade.

But senior Conservatives are pondering whether Mr Johnson’s decision to cling on to his de facto chief of staff could have more lasting repercussions. “The damage is to our moral authority,” said one senior Tory MP, a former cabinet minister.

“Most people think we have not handled coronavirus well, but they were willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the week, nobody is willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.”

Mr Cummings’ power at the heart of Mr Johnson’s operation was widely known inside the Westminster bubble, but it only became fully apparent to the public when the adviser stepped out of the shadows on Monday to give an hour-long press conference in the Downing Street rose garden.

Mr Johnson had invested immense faith in Mr Cummings’ ability to understand “ordinary people”, as witnessed by his stunning orchestration of the UK’s 2016 vote for Brexit, but on Monday the adviser showed signs of losing his touch.

Mr Cummings’ account of why he travelled 260 miles across the country during the lockdown to stay at a family compound, and his subsequent 52-mile day trip to Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight”, drew protests that he had become part of the “out of touch elite” that he had spent a career denouncing.

Amid an onslaught of hostile headlines, some from traditionally Conservative newspapers, one stood out: the tabloid Daily Star broke its tradition of not leading its front page with political stories by printing a cut-out Cummings mask that would allow the wearer to do “whatever the hell you want”.

Two police and crime commissioners reported that Britons who had previously strictly adhered to a lockdown partly drawn up by Mr Cummings were now less likely to stick to government public health instructions in future.

David Jamieson, police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands force, the second largest in England, told the BBC that since the Cummings revelations, officers were getting “pushback” when trying to enforce the rules.

“I’ve received intelligence reports from senior officers in my force who are saying that officers on the ground are reporting things like, ‘if it’s OK for Cummings, it’s OK for us,’ and other people saying, ‘it looks like there’s one rule for us and another rule for people in Number 10 Downing Street’,” said Mr Jamieson.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press chief and perhaps the last person to hold such a powerful backroom role in Number 10, said: “This has shot to pieces the idea that they are not part of the elite.”

He said the danger for Mr Johnson was that the week-long Cummings farce coincided with polling evidence that showed that “the penny is dropping with millions of people that the government really screwed up” its response to the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Johnson’s administration, unusually obsessed by daily focus group research, has seen the prime minister’s approval ratings fall in recent weeks, but his allies note that Britain is four years away from the next election and that the Tories continue to hold a poll lead over Labour.

Craig Oliver, a former director of communications for former prime minister David Cameron, said it was pointless to forecast how the Cummings affair would affect Mr Johnson’s long-term popularity, given the volatility of the political situation.

He said the media and public were still coming to terms with a new reality in British and global politics. “A lot of people are still thinking in terms of the old rules,” Sir Craig said. “These are people who refuse to accept that there are rules of behaviour and they have to abide by them.”

Anthony Wells, director of political research at YouGov, said there was no disputing that the affair had damaged the government in the short-term. “This has cut through, no doubt about it,” he said. “But do people remember these sorts of things in the longer term?”

He said the unanswered question was whether Mr Cummings’ behaviour during the lockdown would be an image that lodged in the public memory. He cited an image of a youthful Mr Cameron cycling into the House of Commons, with an official driver behind him carrying his official papers.

“There are things that stick in people’s minds and keep coming back,” he said.