How a trip to an English castle united Britain against the country’s lockdown architect

May 27, 2020, 5:59 PM UTC
BRIDPORT, ENGLAND - MAY 27: A road sign stating 'Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives' has an additional sign added by members of the public stating 'Except Dominic Cummings' on May 27, 2020 in Bridport, United Kingdom. The British government continues to ease the coronavirus lockdown by announcing schools will open to reception year pupils plus years one and six from June 1st. Open-air markets and car showrooms can also open from the same date. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
Finnbarr Webster—Getty Images

The story sounds like something out of a lesser Shakespeare work.

A deadly disease haunts the land, killing young and old from city to city, village to village. The country folk lock down indoors, and close their businesses, all on ambiguous orders from the government. Restless, and even a bit rebellious, Britons soon learn that the man responsible for the hated lockdown orders is a high-powered, unelected advisor to the ruling party. He’s found out after making an ill-conceived trip to a medieval English castle, a drive that seems to flout his own carefully crafted stay-at-home orders. Cue widespread indignation. A cabinet member resigns. The citizenry want him out. A crisis-inside-a-crisis brews for a country that was already having a bad pandemic.

This is the story of Dominic Cummings, British prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief advisor. You might—or maybe you don’t—remember him as the power broker portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the Brexit TV drama that aired in both the U.K. and on HBO in the U.S. last year.

Cummings is the man widely credited with leading the U.K.’s campaign to leave the EU. Enemies refer to him as the “Svengali” or “Rasputin” of Johnson’s government; proponents see him as a “Renaissance man” capable of cutting through the bureaucracy of government. Following his trip to Barnard Castle, hours north of London, he faces a barrage of criticism that threatens to split Johnson’s Conservative Party over his apparent violations of the strict lockdown rules that he himself helped draft at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others. My inbox is rammed with very angry constituents and I do not blame them,” tweeted Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, one of at least 40 Conservative MPs who’ve called for Cummings to resign or be fired. “They have made difficult sacrifices over the course of the last 9 weeks.”

“It is a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’—and it is not as if he was unfamiliar with guidance he himself helped draw up,” said another Conservative MP, who called Cummings’ actions “utterly indefensible.”

On Wednesday, Johnson faced Members of Parliament in a virtual House of Commons over his staunch defense of Cummings, who has admitted to breaching lockdown to drive 260 miles from London to his parents’ house in the Northeast of England. Johnson said he understood the nation’s “indignation,” but said it was time everyone moved on.

Cummings said the drive, which was later followed by other short trips in the region, was an emergency trip to get backup childcare for his young son at time when both he and his wife had COVID-19 symptoms.

One junior cabinet minister has already resigned over the debacle, saying he could not tell constituents, who had been unable to visit sick family, that “they were all wrong, and one senior advisor to the government was right.”

The Dominic Cummings scandal is shaping up to be one of the largest—if not the largest—threat to Johnson’s party amid the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the U.K. has faced a barrage of criticism from scientists, healthcare workers, and even Conservative party politicians for months over a basket of controversies around its handling of the outbreak. Those scandals have ranged from insufficient testing efforts and PPE, the usability of a new tracing app, unclear guidance on the easing of the lockdown, and a lack of transparency over the source of scientific advice to the government.

Meanwhile, the U.K. has the highest death toll in the world after the U.S., with more than 37,000 people dead as of Wednesday, according to Public Health England.

From “Vote Leave” to “Stay Home”

The Cummings scandal may seem familiar to Britons. A Scottish medical officer and a senior scientific advisor to the government had already been forced to resign for breaking lockdown restrictions. But when it comes to Cummings, those frustrations are turbo-charged, both due to his role in recent British history and his ability (so far) to get the backing of Johnson where others have been quickly booted. His own response has only added to the fire. On the weekend, Cummings gave a televised address from his back garden, refusing to resign, defending his actions as reasonable, and stating, “I do not regret what I did.”

The scandal has also represented a rare moment of unity for Britain’s politically fractious press. The Guardian says he must go. The conservative-learning Telegraph has labeled the mess “Domnishambles.

Like Boris Johnson—an Eton and Oxford educated aristocrat who has railed against the establishment—Cummings is a study in contradictions. An Oxford classics graduate who attended an elite private school, he has railed against British education and pushed for science and data to take an ever-larger role in the country’s politics and civil service. He is a long-time political operative with little patience for formalities, the media, or dress codes: “His sartorial standards have deteriorated the closer he has got to the centre of power,” drily notes a Financial Times profile from January. The same profile reports he has consistently claimed he is only passing through the halls of power, while in fact staying for years.

He is most notorious for spearheading the “Vote Leave” campaign, which helped convince the British public to leave the EU—a campaign which weaponized frustration at the country’s small cohort of elites, a largely London-based, privately educated, Oxbridge graduate club with media connections. It was orchestrated by many of those very elites.

The success of that campaign helped launch Cummings’ reputation as a savvy sloganeer-in-chief. He reportedly had a hand in the recent slogans “Get Brexit Done,” which helped the Conservatives win the December 2019 election, and also the recent “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Protect the NHS”, which has been affixed billboards across the country throughout the multi month lockdown. (It was recently replaced with the much-mocked advice to “Stay Alert.”)

The U.K. officially left the EU on January 31, entering an 11-month transition period to agree to an official trade deal with the EU. The fourth round of trade talks will begin on June 1, and despite the pandemic Johnson’s government has repeatedly ruled out requesting an extension period.

“Political points” and public outrage

Cummings was a source of controversy even before this weekend, particularly after it was revealed he was on the government’s scientific advisory panel, known as SAGE, which is supposed to be free from political interference. His influence has collectively produced an impression that the Prime Minister is deeply dependent on him, and that he has power far beyond a typical government advisor.

That impression was only strengthened this week, as junior MPs publicly called for Cummings to resign, and senior ministers tweeted statements of support for Cummings, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who tweeted that “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t.”

On Tuesday, a daily televised press conference featured a series of tense exchanges as nearly every question directed at Health Secretary Matt Hancock focused on Cummings’ actions, pressing the minister to state whether the advisor had undermined the government’s message to stay home during the lockdown. Among the most controversial of orders are the explicit instruction not to visit second or additional homes, or to travel long distances away from a primary residence, a fine-able offense.

At one point on Tuesday’s public briefing, Hancock took a question from a priest who pushed the minister to confirm that any fines given due to travel for childcare reasons would be revoked. That prompted Hancock to say he would check with the Treasury if this was a possibility, before adding that Cummings’ circumstances were “exceptional.” Shortly after the press conference, the government confirmed that no fees would be waived, The Times reported.

While some conservative MPs dismissed the outcry as a political sideshow, there were clear signs of growing outrage among the public, across party lines. The party’s approval rating has taken a hit, with YouGov reporting that the party’s approval rating had fallen to 44% from 48% in a single week. Another survey by YouGov found that 59% of Britons believe Cummings broke the rules and should resign or be fired. A third poll, by JL Partners, found 80% believe the aide broke lockdown rules.

But the government appears to be anxious to move the public’s attention. On Tuesday, cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said the country had other issues to focus on, and told the BBC it was “time to move on.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Johnson, a fan of the classics, searched for a term to dismiss the matter out of hand. The scandal, he said, was little more than “political ding dong.”

Ding dong or not, it’s unlikely to blow over any time soon.