If Dominic Cummings had done this on Saturday, after the story of his trip to Durham was first reported, he would have saved the prime minister a lot of trouble. It is one of Alastair Campbell’s rules of communication: get all the facts out as early as possible.
By delaying, Cummings has allowed the view to become fixed in the public mind that he broke the lockdown rules that most people thought they had been following, often at great cost to themselves.
His account of his “drive to an isolated cottage on my father’s farm” was coherent, with many of the weak points in the narrative successfully barricaded. He did not stop at all on the drive from London to Durham. He kept his distance from his parents, his sister and his nieces on the farm, and he, his wife and son kept their distance from people when he went to collect his son from hospital and when he went on a test drive, after the quarantine period was over, to see if he was well enough to drive back to London.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
But however compelling the individual episodes, the story arc is that one of the ruling elite took it upon himself to decide how to apply the rules to his own particular case. Many people who might otherwise have been sympathetic have already returned their verdict to the jury foreman: guilty of double standards.
And he opened up new holes in the story that will feed the media frenzy for many more days. When his wife was ill, he dashed home, running in view of the cameras, but then came back to work that evening, when the advice is to begin self-isolating immediately. He said she did not have the classic coronavirus symptoms, but in the same breath that he was worried he would go down with it: what was he doing going back into the office? Why did he “test his eyesight” on a 30-minute drive with his child and wife in the car?
Still, he did what he had to do to stem the tide of opinion that was running strongly against him. He gave supporters of the prime minister – whose numbers have dwindled over the past few days – enough material to mount a defence of his conduct that will be enough to allow him to stay in Downing Street.
In this it is worth comparing his performance with that of Alastair Campbell, who appeared on Channel 4 News in 2003 in order to defend himself against the BBC’s allegations that he had “sexed up” the intelligence on Iraq. The parallel is striking: two political advisers, very close to the prime minister, both under siege, and each deciding to break with convention to make their case on camera.
Cummings had longer to set out his case, and did better than Campbell in controlling his temper. Perhaps he has some method like Campbell’s practice of stabbing himself with a paperclip to keep his anger in check. In both cases, they felt traduced by the media. Cummings on Monday repeatedly accused journalists of publishing untrue stories about him, and complained that he couldn’t correct them because that led only to further confusion.
Campbell did himself no good by going on TV, which he did at short notice in the heat of the moment. Cummings did himself more good, but was unable to explain why he hadn’t done it before. He even started by admitting: “In retrospect I should have made this statement earlier.”
In Campbell’s case, the public had already decided that there was something wrong with the case for joining the invasion of Iraq, and there was little he could do to convince people that the government had been honest.
So it is with Cummings. The public has already decided that he and Boris Johnson think that the rules for the little people don’t apply to them. Cummings has done enough to save his job. But that may be the worst outcome for the government and the country. It may be unfair, but he needs to go if the prime minister is to rebuild trust with the people – trust that will be needed more than ever as he tries to lead the nation out of lockdown.