We become what we hate, so yogis tell us. For Dominic Cummings, son-in-law of a baronet and nephew of a judge, the transition to unelected and unaccountable metropolitan elitist was a short journey.
The Prime Minister has thrown his weight behind him for now and the Cabinet were dutifully tweeting on behalf of a devoted family man who felt the compelling need to drive the length of the country to self-isolate in his other home. Will this last?
The answer may depend on the answers to the following four questions.
1. What actually happened?
The story that we have been given so far defies credulity. How did Dominic Cummings actually know he was going to get so ill that he couldn’t look after his child at a time when he was apparently capable of driving 250 miles?
Let us put to one side the legalities and the ethics of the matter. Let us also put to one side whether the commissioning editor of the Spectator and the Prime Minister’s chief adviser might just possibly have been able to find help much closer at hand to London than County Durham.
We are being asked to believe that Dominic Cummings – a man who was not knowledgeable enough about the disease to work out how to avoid catching it – was able to predict (in a way that mere doctors could not) that he was going to be poleaxed by the disease rather than shrug it off as many of his age do. Truly he is a superforecaster.
Then let us imagine that drive. Imagine a man fevered with illness, with his very ill wife beside him and the three year old in the back seat. It would be a voyage of the damned. Did they stop on the way? Most three year olds are like taps on long journeys. Did they have enough petrol? How many times did they give others the involuntary opportunity to participate in the development of herd immunity?
The government seems not to care about putting the minds of the public at rest. They have not formally confirmed the date or time of the journey as yet.
And then they arrived at his parents’ house, where we are being asked to believe that they did not after all come into contact with his parents, but were tended to by younger family members. According to the report you believe, he either “day in, day out for ten days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs” (his wife’s account) or was in the garden listening to Dancing Queen.
It has to be said that Mary Wakefield’s account, like Roger Ackroyd’s, deserves congratulations for its modesty and reticence. Like his account, some rows of stars appropriately placed in the text would probably have assisted the reader. Perhaps she can provide a revised version at some point.
Curiously, no one at all as far as I can see has thought about the journey back. When was that? Were Dominic Cummings and Mary Wakefield still infectious then? Why did they not stay in place? That journey seems to have been even more unnecessary. Could they not continue to work remotely?
Then there are the apparently-numerous recreational journeys that Dominic Cummings took back to the north east. Perhaps he saw himself as supporting the public amenities of the north east at that stage. He seems to have been making the journey between London and Durham almost as often as LNER train staff. The government is refusing to comment on these. At some point it is going to need to.
2. Did Dominic Cummings’ decision lead to a change in government guidance?
This looks distinctly possible on the time line we currently have. The Guardian put its allegations about Dominic Cummings to Number 10 on 10 April. That afternoon, Jenny Harries provided clarification of the earlier guidance:
“Clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance.
And if the individuals do not have access to care support, formal care support, or to family, they will be able to work through their local authority hubs.”
This conveniently retrospectively gave Dominic Cummings some cover.
Perhaps that was a coincidence. It would be helpful to have it cleared up whether and when that scenario had been war-gamed. If public policy had changed to give some support to the Prime Minister’s adviser’s decisions, that would be a shocking abuse of power.
3. When did Boris Johnson know?
Then there is the question of the Prime Minister’s role. The story is weeks old but the Prime Minister has taken no action before now.
The Prime Minister was very ill at the earliest stages of all this and it is entirely understandable that he might not have been briefed for quite some time. But he must surely have known long before it came to light, given the questions from the newspapers and yet he did nothing. Why?
The obvious conclusion is that he didn’t care. That again begs the question: why?
4. How does the government intend to claim moral authority when it wants the public to follow its guidance in future?
This final question is the most important one. The government has a critically important role right now of both keeping the country healthy and making sure the economy isn’t wrecked. That dual role is difficult to balance at the best of times.
Dominic Cummings’ actions have torched the government’s claims to any moral authority. Every child who has not seen his or her parent, every grandparent who has stoically sat alone for weeks, every wife who has had to see her husband buried without mourners or proper ceremony now knows that the government was making mugs of them. For that matter, every person who has ached with loneliness missing loved ones has been told that those at the highest levels of government are swanning around without a care in the world. Many of them are now in a cold fury.
The government will need to call on the public to follow its instructions again, and very shortly. The public will now listen to that call very differently. It will not listen as part of a team but as serfs listen to the lords of the manor. They might comply but they will not engage. And many will not comply, but instead will make their own decisions as to what they do. The fearful will stay at home. The reckless will ignore government restrictions.
As a result, the tearing up of government guidelines to protect its most senior adviser will in all probability cost lives and cause further damage to the economy. Let us hope that it was worth it for the government. It’s hard to see how it was for the country.