LONDON — It was an unprecedented press conference in every way, not least because the government’s own code of conduct for special advisers states that they “must not take part in public political controversy, through any form of statement.”
But it was long ago obvious, that the ordinary rules do not apply where Dominic Cummings is concerned.
As 4 p.m. came and went, it became increasingly clear that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser has as much respect for time as he has for the lockdown rules.
More than thirty minutes passed before Britain’s best known SpAd — short for special adviser — deigned to gift the waiting world with an explanation of why he seems to have violated the government’s strict lockdown rules by driving almost 300 miles to his parents’ farm in Durham, after his wife said she felt ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
When Cummings finally did stroll out into the Downing Street rose garden in his trademark untucked shirt, it quickly became clear that the strategy — hammered out behind closed doors over the last 24 hours — was for him to appear, if not contrite then at least eminently reasonable. And if that failed, he would drone everyone into submission.
“None of our usual childcare options were available,” so the Cummings had headed north.
Over the next twenty minutes, the prime minister’s most trusted adviser — and the man widely credited with bringing Britain Brexit — delivered a detailed justification for his movements.
In April, his wife had rung him to say she was feeling ill and he had decided that they would therefore drive to a safe space, where help would be available if needed.
Everyone else in the country might have got the message about staying at home and saving lives but uniquely: “None of our usual childcare options were available,” so the Cummings had headed north.
In his version of events, Cummings was both victim and hero of the piece — a family man who had acted reasonably and who had subsequently been unfairly set upon by the press for doing the right thing.
This was an “exceptional situation” and “numerous false stories in the media” had sought to discredit him and make him look as if he had done something wrong. Cummings claimed he had a “full tank of petrol” and knew that he could safely drive to Durham and would be able to self-isolate in an empty estate cottage.
Having reached his parents’ farm, he and his wife had both displayed COVID-19 symptoms and self-isolated with their 4-year-old son. But then after a 14 day period, having recovered sufficiently, decided that it might be time to go back to work.
Cummings had suffered eyesight problems during the illness and his partner was worried so they “agreed to go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely.”
That last admission already seems likely to be a phrase that will launch a thousand memes.
It was during that brief car journey to Barnard Castle and during some subsequent toilet breaks and exercise that he was spotted by members of the public, who were wished a hearty “Happy Easter” by Mrs. Cummings as they stared on from a distance.
It was all very reasonable, he said, and “I don’t regret what I did.”
In ensuing question and answers with the journalists present, he doubled down. He hadn’t bothered the prime minister with the details of his journey because Johnson “had a million things on his plate” and was ill in bed.
Cummings blamed the media, the public, the willful misinterpretation of his words — but he refused to accept that he himself had acted wrongly.
Whatever he might say, however much he might refute it — Cummings did break the rules. While millions of other Britons forewent freedom of movement, while hundreds of thousands struggled with childcare and the effects of the virus, Johnson’s top adviser decided that he was above the fray.
What was on show in Cummings’ performance was the underlying superciliousness of the new elite running Britain — and most of all that of the Svengali who sits behind its throne whispering instructions.
How dare mere hacks and police constables question the judgment of the man who gave the world Brexit. It all made perfect sense to him so why couldn’t they grasp it?
Cummings has always been a whole set of paradoxes. For twenty years he carved a niche for himself in the shadows, cementing the agenda of Euroskeptic conservatism and serving the biggest elite in the land, while claiming all the while that he was some kind of anti-establishment outlier.
The growing antipathy of millions of Britons for an administration that thinks it’s “one rule for them and another for us” might yet frame the government’s future.
He isn’t. He sits at the heart of an overconfident inherently arrogant establishment that thinks it can ride this one out.
Cummings has a lot of enemies both within and without the inner corridors of power, and this performance won’t have won him many fans. Genuine contrition was thin on the ground and he seemed more preoccupied that “media reports” about him were false than anything else.
Perhaps he and Johnson have calculated it correctly. Perhaps he will weather this storm and cling on to power.
But if that happens, the damage it has wrought will linger. The growing antipathy of millions of Britons for an administration that thinks it’s “one rule for them and another for us” might yet frame the government’s future.
Whatever eventually happens, Cummings can add another paradox to his curriculum vitae.
The architect of Britain’s effort to “take back control” from the unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats is now an unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat refusing to cede control.