Dominic Cummings, a government advisor who was dubbed the ‘architect of Brexit’ has often been in the limelight this year. After showing COVID19 symptoms, he drove his family 260-miles to Durham where his extended family lives, implicitly breaking the ‘Stay at Home’ protocol the Prime Minister had forged to protect the wider public.
On the surface, this was a concerned father who did what was ‘morally’ right for himself and his family. However, despite leaving Downing Street earlier this month the legacy of the Cummings affair lives on.
Four issues with The Dominic Cummings Incident
- The Prime Minister prioritised an unelected advisor over an important public health message – The ‘Stay at Home’ or ‘Stay Alert’, however nebulous it is, prompted the majority of the British public to follow lockdown protocol. COVID19 has led to the death of over 36,000 people in Britain and claimed more British lives than the Iraq War. The electorate who did overwhelmingly vote for Boris Johnson did so largely because of his ‘Get Brexit done’ pledge. Repaying this faith would have been to request an apology from Cummings, and perhaps most of us would have let it go. However, the Prime Minister chose to defend Cummings who had undermined the government’s public health message. We keep hearing about ‘leadership’, but leading people is about making tough decisions, being vocal and setting an example. I don’t believe the Prime Minister did any of this, hence the public outcry. In fact, his exact words were that Cummings acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity”. Whether or not Dominic Cummings acted illegally remains unknown but when everyone else was in lockdown and making huge sacrifices, on the surface it does look like he was allowed to be the exception to the rule.
- No apology, remorse or compassion – Analysing the language, tone and even the posture of Cummings during his speech in the aftermath, really demonstrated the vast disconnect between the general public and those in power. There was no apology, no acknowledgement of wrongdoing or even a slightest hint of how his own conduct has upset so many. There was a real ‘I’ve got something over you, Boris’ sentiment in Cummings’ demeanour. This is a handsomely paid senior advisor, someone who was part of the process in forming a COVID19 response. He knew full well how his actions could be seen as undermining the hard work that was being put in to protect the NHS and stop the spread of the virus. His speech felt very forced, artificial and monotone. Despite many calling for his resignation, the majority of the British public wanted to hear see some remorse.
- Gaslighting the public – Gaslighting is about challenging the emotional and cognitive competence of others. Again, the public health message was to ‘Stay at Home’ but Cummings was acting ‘responsibly’ by driving his own family 260 miles to Durham. The political establishment has a long history of employing, empowering and entertaining the ideas of unelected advisors and consultants. Johnson, Gove, Sunak, Williamson and other leapt to the defence of Cummings, the same way Tony Blair backed his unelected senior advisor, Alistair Campbell during the Iraq War enquiries. Yet we were told not to socialise and not meet anyone outside of our own household. People have missed funerals or watched loved ones pass away on Zoom, whilst many haven’t seen their children or partners for months. The terrible impact this social distancing has had on our personal relationships cannot be understated.
- Politicisation of kindness – Cummings wasn’t a victim. Our kindness should be reserved for those who have lost loved ones, in addition to NHS staff and frontline workers and teachers. Not to mention the estimated 1.5million people who go without food every day during this pandemic. Kindness isn’t an elitist metaphor or fad that we can switch on and off as we please. When we see comparisons between the late Caroline Flack and Dominic Cummings, this notion of ‘throw kindness around like confetti’, we are witnessing a narrative that suits those in power. We must ask ourselves, was it ‘kind’ to tell the public to stay at home then support an advisor who broke this protocol? Was it ‘kind’ to make the crass ‘herd immunity’ judgement whilst hundred lay dead from a terrifying illness? Finally, was it ‘kind’ to tell a Dr in Parliament to ‘watch her tone’? Kindness must seep into our every interaction not simply to help us fight our own causes.
Lord Acton coined the phrase ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’. That with greater power, influence and status, a sense of moral obligation dies.
Handing Johnson a mandate in 2019, knowing what we already knew, perhaps this is just desserts?
The Committee on Standards in Public Life (1995) set out seven key principles for those who occupy positions of public interest – Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.
Which of those seven have been adhered to during the Cummings scandal?