- Matthew Oulton & Sinem Ulusoy
Should Dominic Cummings resign? Two writers cast their verdicts
Matthew Oulton argues in favour of resignation
Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. Number 10 was unequivocal in its messaging during the early weeks of the lockdown. What they didn’t mention in the slogan above, apparently, was that the rules don’t apply if you’re the chief adviser to the Prime Minister. Reading from a prepared statement on Monday, Dominic Cummings tried desperately to explain to an irate public why he had gone against the lockdown he helped to implement, and also that it wasn’t technically illegal. Whilst he has so far been backed by Number 10 and the government, it’s time for him to resign.
Firstly, it’s worth addressing the purpose of lockdown in the first place. Before lockdown was instituted, the government was already advising people not to go out, but people mostly didn’t obey. The entire purpose of the lockdown was to remove personal judgement from the equation. By using his ‘intuition’ in deciding what course of action to take, Dominic Cummings entirely undermined the purpose of the nationwide lockdown. His situation wasn’t an emergency, in which breaking the basic rules laid out both in regulation and repeatedly by ministers might’ve been justified. If Cummings had, as he maintained, felt he was in an exceptional circumstance, he should have consulted both colleagues at Number 10, and the police. That he didn’t indicates both his disregard for the authority of the rules he helps set, and a disdain for the ordinary British people, who are subject to them.
Though Downing Street has denied that Cummings broke the letter of the law, it seems obvious that he did. The rules clearly laid out only four reasons that members of the public could go out. The trip from London to Durham was not one of these reasons, and any talk of ‘exceptional circumstances’ don’t hold water. Many people went through a similar situation, single parents up and down the country coped with looking after their children alone despite having the virus themselves. The government explicitly forbade people from visiting their second homes; to make matters worse, his household was displaying symptoms of the virus at this time, so shouldn’t even have been leaving his house. It seems obvious that Cummings did in fact break lockdown unnecessarily. Hypocrisy ruins the government’s credibility, and whilst he remains in place the public should be wary of believing anything the government says. Breaking the law, especially when he was so intimately involved in crafting that law, is grounds for dismissal in itself.
Then, there is the communications angle. From an optics perspective this is clearly a nightmare. Even if he wasn’t actually breaking the letter of the law, the appearance of hypocrisy is unavoidable. In normal times, this is a bad look, in an unprecedented health crisis, bad communications cost lives. The government is now faced with the prospect of people ignoring legal instructions because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that the government isn’t serious about them. This a huge strategic communications misstep from Cummings, one which can also only be resolved in one way. The Prime Minister must be clear to the public that obeying government regulations is crucial in maintaining public health. As such, he must sack Dominic Cummings.
Finally, there’s the actual physical risk he put others in. Though Cummings maintains that he never came into contact with anyone on his trip up to Durham with his family, he didn’t know that this was going to be the case. An accidental detour could have forced him to stop for petrol, a car accident or breakdown could have exposed members of the public to him and his family. Lockdown isn’t about the optimal situation – otherwise we could have all left the house as much as we wanted, provided we didn’t meet up with those we knew to be sick. Lockdown was about preventing unlikely but plausible events. It may not have been likely that Cummings himself spread the virus by travelling to Durham, but if we all behaved like him, the spread would have definitely been worse.
To sum it up, Cummings must resign for three reasons. Firstly, he has blatantly violated rules that he himself helped to establish. Secondly, he has compromised the government’s messaging and endangered public health. Finally, he has acted at best irresponsibly, and at worst illegally, and this is not behaviour fitting of a representative and employee of our elected government. Now is Johnson’s chance to ‘take back control’ from an unelected technocrat.
Sinem Ulusoy argues against resignation
No apology, no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, no expression of regret, no accountability, blaming the press for the spread of ‘false’ news… this summarises Dominic Cummings’ unusual press conference on the 25th of June. But should his decision to drive to Durham mean that he should resign at a time of national crisis?
It is undeniable that what Cummings did was tremendously wrong, and certainly not “responsibly, legally and with integrity” as Prime Minister Johnson claims. Cummings, the chief advisor to the PM, should have known better. He may “respectfully disagree” with the media and the public, but Cummings’ actions ultimately make a mockery of the many people who made heartbreaking sacrifices that resulted in them unable to visit their relatives in hospitals, and even attend their funerals for a final goodbye.
The press conference was extraordinary in itself – his lack of an apology, “respectfully disagreeing” with those claiming that what he did was wrong, and stating that he “does not regret” his actions have been faced by an understandable uproar from the media and general public. Along with this dismissive attitude during the press conference, it seems as though Cummings feels he is above the rules he himself proposed. His so-called “exceptional circumstances” were not exceptional in any way, and his excuses of driving 260 miles because there were no childcare options and driving 30 minutes to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight are very poor.
However, it goes without saying that we are in the midst of a national and international crisis. The excessive focus on Cummings’ irresponsible decisions have, in my view, been exaggerated to a degree that has resulted in a shift of public focus from more important matters. Whilst I do believe that this should not merely be ignored and forgotten, for the time being, we should keep the government accountable for issues that *do* directly affect the R rate going above 1. This includes the decision to ease lockdown measures, including the re-opening of state primary schools from the 1st of June and the re-opening of non-essential stores on the 15th of June. Furthermore, the irresponsible decision to permit driving any distance in the midst of a pandemic has ultimately resulted in thousands of people flocking to beaches during the bank holiday weekend. With almost 37,000 deaths and a number continuously rising, now is not the time for quarrels about one chief advisors’ trip to Durham.
I also want to mention the media treatment of Cummings. Whilst politicians need to be taken accountable at all costs, seeing images of a van playing Johnson’s ‘Stay Home’ message in front of Cummings’ house has made me somewhat uncomfortable. Irrespective of one’s political views, I do not understand how this is being widely accepted as a consequence of breaking lockdown measures – have people forgotten that there is a four-year-old child in that household?
Cummings should not be the story. His decision was utterly catastrophic, but it is the elected politician who appointed him as his senior advisor that should be the story. The decision of Johnson and other senior politicians such as Michael Gove to publicly support Cummings and reject any possibility of Cummings’ wrongdoing is not only disrespectful, but also rather telling of the political situation this country is currently in. The honourable action by Johnson would have been to acknowledge the mistake made by his advisor, to apologise, and to insist people comply with the current lockdown rules – but rather, he stated that he does “regret the anger, confusion and pain that people feel” (essentially a formal sorry but not sorry). This lack of a genuine apology or any compassion by the government we elected into office is the real issue that must be addressed. But at this very moment, the resignation of Cummings will not achieve anything substantial, but rather a temporary feeling of satisfaction. Cummings’ elitism is merely a part of a wider problem in British politics. PM Johnson and other Conservative politicians must be held accountable, but at this very moment, the PM needs all the help he can get. Once COVID-19 has been beaten, then we must keep these delusional elitist politicians accountable for the pain and suffering they have caused – not only for the sake of the lives lost during the pandemic, but also for the victims of Grenfell Tower.