Analysis: Police findings will be a disappointment to critics of Dominic Cummings

28 May 2020, 18:01

Dominic Cummings may well have breached the very lockdown rules that he helped draw up
Dominic Cummings may well have breached the very lockdown rules that he helped draw up. Picture: PA

By Ben Kentish

LBC's Westminster Correspondent Ben Kentish gives his latest analysis on the Dominic Cummings row.

Until now, the view in Westminster had been that there were two things that could force Dominic Cummings from the top echelons of government: a clear finding against him by police, or an avalanche of angry Conservatives MPs and ministers calling for him to go.

Neither has materialised. While 45 Tory MPs have said that Cummings should resign or be sacked, the slow drip of caveated condemnations and the lack of government ministers speaking out has not significantly added to pressure on Boris Johnson to sack his top adviser.

Cummings’ critics had hoped that a police finding of wrongdoing would have more of an impact. They will be disappointed.

No10 responded to Durham Constabulary’s conclusion that the Prime Minister’s aide “might” have breached lockdown rules by doubling down, re-iterating that Mr Johnson believes his adviser acted “reasonably and legally” and that he “regards this issue as closed”.

Dominic Cummings: legal rules around lockdown 'did not cover his circumstances'

Yet the police finding that, by driving to Barnard Castle during his stay in Durham, Cummings may well have breached the very lockdown rules that he helped draw up will ensure that a story that has already run for six days and done immense damage to the government will drag on further still.

It will also provide fresh ammunition to those, including 71 per cent of the public, who believe that Mr Cummings did indeed break the rules.

From the start, it was difficult to see how the 60-mile round trip to a renowned beauty spot, accompanied by his wife and son, on his wife’s birthday, on Easter Sunday, with the stated reason of checking his eyesight, could have been within the regulations.

That Durham Constabulary appear to be of a similar view significantly weakens the government’s argument that Mr Cummings did not break the rules, and strengthens the case of those who claim the episode shows that it is one rule for Downing Street advisers and another rule for the rest of us.

The police statement also raises major questions of the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and most of the Cabinet, who had insisted very clearly that Mr Cummings had not broken any rules.

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The police finding that, in fact, he may well have done suggests that those running the country are either mistaken about the rules they were responsible for drawing up, implementing and urging us all to follow, or were being economical with the truth in claiming that Mr Cummings had not broken them.

Still, Boris Johnson has shown no sign of being the slightest bit bothered by any of this, and not a hint that there are any circumstances in which he would be willing to sack Mr Cummings over this issue.

The Prime Minister who last year dismissed even a Supreme Court ruling against him for unlawfully suspending Parliament is not going to give in and fire his most influential adviser because of a heavily caveated statement from Durham Constabulary.

The Prime Minister has made up his mind, and the public have made up theirs. The majority of them, including of Tory voters and Leave supporters, think Mr Cummings broke the rules and most believe he should be sacked.

That he was not has led to confidence in the government falling by 20% in four days – the most extreme drop since 2010 – and Johnson’s personal approval ratings plummeting to -1.

That trust will not be easy to win back, especially among former Labour voters who cast aside party loyalties to put their faith in a man who promised to lead a “People’s Government” in which “the people are our bosses”.

The row over Cummings’ actions is so damaging for the Conservatives precisely because it plays into voters’ old concerns about elitism and exceptionalism, which Mr Johnson’s future electoral success relies on dispelling.

Despite all this, some in government say there is now nothing to be gained by sacking Cummings, because any political benefit would only have applied soon after the story broke, when swift action would have ended the matter and made Mr Johnson appear strong and determined to make clear that the rules apply to everyone equally.

Firing him now would simply look like the Prime Minister had finally bowed to pressure after spending the best part of a week desperately trying to avoid having to do so.

So, against all the odds and all political precedent, Dominic Cummings will remain in his job – for now at least.

The bigger question is just how much damage this saga has done to Boris Johnson among voters, and whether current public fury at the government is short-lived or, as some Tory MPs fear, a sign of things to come.