Did Dominic Cummings pull a fast one in his lockdown-bending trip to Durham?

He’s (rightly) been criticised — but has an uncanny knack for mobilising people’s frustration to his advantage. Has he done it again?

I want to describe his trip to Durham during the lockdown as somewhere between “grossly irresponsible” and “utterly foolish”. But it is a little too easy to write him off.

This is the man who took a pile of grievances about things that had little to do with the European Union and coalesced them into a vote for Brexit — even though this will make life worse for most of those who voted for it.

This is the man who (apparently) took last year’s parliamentary stalement and Boris Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament and enabled the Tories to win a handsome majority — even though the tiny increase in the Conservative vote makes it look more like a vote against a Corbyn government than support for a Johnson one.

His Durham trip has been roundly condemned, but he’s survived. I fear that, once again, he has done something I think is foolish, but which might just work to his advantage.

Covid19 is a strange illness because many people show no symptoms, and many more don’t need hospital treatment. We are taking it seriously because of its severe effects on a minority. But there will be people suffering financially or emotionally because of the lockdown who will want — and perhaps need — to see this as an exaggeration. Occasionally in the UK, and more often in the US, people have wanted to dismiss it as “no worse than flu”. Just because that is a denial of reality doesn’t mean people are not thinking it. Cummings’ dress and behaviour seems calculated to say “the establishment is wrong” — he’s just positioned himself as the hero of people who see concern over Covid19 as “the establishment” making life difficult.

He’s given a perfect excuse to anyone wanting to break the rules, in this lockdown, or in future ones.

The government seems to have been trying to avoid creating a situation where its scientists are drawn into commenting on what Cummings did. That’s probably right, but for people frightened by the scientists’ comments, or who have “had enough of experts”, what he’s done is to sideline them.

The storm has also pushed away from the front pages the very real figures for Covid19 deaths in the UK, which are high enough to put a question mark over the wisdom of relaxing the lockdown. It’s also pushed away the complexity of talks with the EU over a post-Brexit deal and sidelined the wise politicians who are saying that we should extend the transition period rather than have the economy being badly hurt both by Covid19 and by Brexit.

We’re nowhere near the end of the Covid19 saga. Numbers will go up again as the lockdown is relaxed. Cummings has undermined the effectiveness of lockdown, so we will face more stories of very real suffering than we would have done had he stayed in London. They will help to hide bad news stories about negotiations with the EU, which were always going to be difficult, and are now also delayed. They also make easier to blame Covid19 for the very real economic damage of Brexit — especially if we leave without an agreement.

I hope I am wrong. I hope Cummings was just “very foolish”. But if I am right, the first thing we need to do is name the problem. We shouldn’t be blinded by anger at his folly the folly was a calculated ruse to hide something more sinister.

PS (13 June): The deadline for the UK to request an extension for the Brexit implementation period is 30 June. The fuss around this trip dominated the headlines and drew attention from this. The sense of people being frustrated by lockdown provided a perfect justification for relaxing it, creating a sense that “things are improving”, which has also drawn attention from government ministers refusing a Brexit extension. This has been presented as if it is a minor deal. Yet the infection rates in many parts of the country are still close to one — even with lockdown. That means that, already, each person infected, infects one other.

Relaxing the rules, especially when summer encourages people to gather in groups, means the infection rate will go up. I am concerned that the language around relaxing the rules isn’t “relaxing the rules in a way that keeps infection under control but eases the harm to people’s livelihoods”, it’s just an optimistic “relaxing the rules”. Optimism can be great, but not when it turns into “no-deal Brexit will be fine if we’re optimistic about it” when the reality is it will do real harm.

This comes on the back of repeated comments about Cummings behaviour. Back in September 2019 Carole Cadwalladr wrote in The Guardian of “The real reason we should fear the work of Dominic Cummings”, saying that “Downing Street’s controversial top adviser faces new accusations of poisoning politics, but his true nature was clear during Vote Leave’s Brexit triumph”. She has a point.

The original version of this article was published on Liberal Democrat Voice on 2 June 2020

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