27 May 2020

Cummings has his faults, but it would be wrong to sack him


In their agonising over the future employment prospects of Dominic Cummings many Conservatives have got it the wrong way round. The dilemma is presented as being that he broke the rules over the lockdown, or at least the spirit of the rules. But that due to his strategic brilliance he is indispensable to the Government. 

As far as the first point is concerned, the claim that he broke the rules is based on noting that he did not follow the Government’s oft-repeated stricture to “stay at home”. But surely it was obvious that while that was the basic message there were all sorts of necessary exceptions allowed for in the guidelines. It says: “If you have children, keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.” To make this even more obvious the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, said, on March 24th: “Clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance.” 

So if parents are incapacitated, or anticipate a significant risk of being incapacitated, they should take measures to safeguard their children. What measures? This is where the “spirit of the rules” comes in. The guidance can not be prescriptive for every conceivable eventuality. The only viable way is for personal responsibility to be exercised. The state allows us some flexibility, some discretion. It is necessary to trust the people. One of the disturbing aspects of the crisis has been the yearning some people have shown for totalitarianism – for common sense to be removed from the equation and every decision to be made by officials.

Cummings gave his account at a long press conference on Monday of the decisions that he and his wife Mary made. The media bristles with hostility. The desperation to find a “gotcha” was palpable as the minutia was picked over. It felt a bit like a show trial. None of the charges could really stick but the journalists queued up to pronounce Cummings guilty.

Robert Peston of ITV asked Cummings again on why he used his own judgement rather than following the rules. Cummings replied: “With respect, Robert, you are allowed to exercise judgement. The rules explicitly say that, as I have said to you before. The rules explicitly say when you live with small children you have to exercise judgement in that situation. The rules are not millions of pages long setting out what to do in every set of circumstances…of course people have to make judgements about these things.” To have officials making every decision impractical but morally pernicious. In judging others we have to consider that sometimes there are difficult alternatives – no perfect option might be available. 

The same questions would be repeated again and again. Was this that the journalists had their pre-prepared scripts and were unable to think on their feet? Or was it a ruse to rile Cummings in the hope that he would become exasperated and lose his temper. If the latter was the explanation it failed – he remained calm throughout the ordeal. 

Last night on Newsnight, the BBC’s Emily Maitlis said: “Dominic Cummings broke the rules, the country can see that, and it’s shocked the Government cannot.” In making that claim of  Cummings she was the rule breaker – brazenly flouting the requirements from Ofcom for impartiality and accuracy.

But she is right that the opinion polls suggest that the public believe Cummings did break the rules. That is not surprising. We have considerable scepticism of those in authority over us. There were also days of media coverage stating, or implying, that Cummings broke the rules.

But that general claim is false and so are several of the specific allegations. When challenged, the media retreat into saying that the public seem to believe it – a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. A lie is half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on. However, it would have been better of the truth had got its boots on last Friday rather than late on Monday afternoon.

During that time, the Guardian readers of Islington – whether prompted by synthetic outrage or genuine anger – have undertaken a campaign of harassment outside the Cummings family home. Most shocking of all was that a group of bishops joined in the attack, repeating untrue claims and thus fuelling the mood of hatred towards Cummings.

At the same time, politicians in a democracy can scarcely be indifferent to public opinion. Conservative MPs have had hundreds of furious emails. Many of the Conservative MPs are new and so have not experienced such a thing before. They will learn. The polls still show the Conservatives with a clear lead over Labour and no government can expect to be constantly popular. Whatever further twists to come in the Cummings saga, we can say with some confidence it will not be a key issue in the 2024 General Election. The test drive to Barnard Castle might survive as a pub quiz question, perhaps.

What is the explanation for such ferocity against Cummings? Of course, for many of his critics it is not sincere concern about public safety, but a proxy for the Brexit campaign many have spent the last four years trying to relitigate.

Some Remainers have found it therapeutic to persuade themselves that they lost the EU referendum due to the evil genius of Cummings. That was, for instance, the narrative on Brexit:The Uncivil War – where Benedict Cumberbatch played Cummings. The rest of the Leave campaigners were variously portrayed as dolts, snobs or racists. The triumph was presented as a personal crusade by Cummings – who though presented as mad, dishonest and cynical was also so supremely capable as to thwart enlightened opinion. 

However, some Brexiteers feel Cummings was a liability. While a divisive figure, I reckon he is a pretty effective campaigner and was probably a net plus, but not a critical figure. The Leavers would still have won without him.

Subsequently, much of the reputation that Cummings has maintained for brilliance has relied on journalists struggling to read his blog, finding it impenetrable and therefore sagely declaring that he must be very clever indeed.

In fact, Cummings does get things wrong. Last year, he was urging MPs vote through Theresa May’s Brexit deal, declaring that otherwise there would be no Brexit. He said Tory MPs in the European Research Group were acting as “Remain’s useful idiots” by failing to see this. There are certainly mistakes over Government policy regarding lockdown which Cummings will have been partly responsible for – whatever view one has of his personal arrangements. 

This is no to doubting his intelligence. But intelligent people in Government can be more of a menace than humble plodders. That is due to what Hayek called the “fatal conceit”. These people convince themselves they are so clever that – with their “super forecasters” – they can manage our affairs better than we can. That with central planning they can allocate resources to meet future requirements. The scientists will be directed to research x, the manufacturers to produce more of y. 

I fear that Cummings comes under this category and is thus a force pushing us towards a big state. He itches so much to scheme his schemes that he has impatience with the free market and individual liberty. The Prime Minister should listen to alternative advice – which he often does.  So not only is he expendable, but all of us are. Not only does he have an unpleasant tendency to be rude to those he disagrees with, which has left him with a limited reservoir of friends, but his impact on Government policy is also negative.

Despite all this, it would be wrong to sack him and I would be sorry to see him resign. Timing and context matter. It matters for truth and justice to prevail against the mob. To ditch Cummings now would be craven. It would embolden an ugly, bullying side in our politics. It would mean taking us in the direction of the type of society I do not want us to go. 

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.