“Advisers advise, ministers decide.” There’s a reason Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism is cited so frequently; it’s the neatest possible explanation of one of the many unwritten rules of British politics and delineates where the responsibilities of the consigliere end and those of his boss begin.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, are at the white-hot center of a scandal over whether Cummings broke the lockdown rules that he helped design. The broader principle captured by Thatcher is being put to the test: Do advisers really just advise? After all, strategists are typically behind-the-scenes figures, and even powerful ones like Cummings almost never speak in public. But on Monday, Cummings took the unprecedented step of holding a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street to address the alleged lockdown breach. Millions tuned in.
While the government’s lockdown rules ordered Britain to “stay home,” Cummings drove several hundred miles from London with his wife and young child to isolate in a cottage on his family’s farm in Durham. Whether the facts that precipitated this farcical-but-furious political row—which also include an hour-long round trip to a picturesque market town on his wife’s birthday that Cummings, somewhat implausibly, claims was to test his eyesight after he displayed Covid-19 symptoms—breach the letter of Britain’s lockdown laws is a debate that rages on Zoom calls and at socially distanced picnics. What can be said beyond doubt is that Cummings broke the spirit of those rules; that his alleged violation has become a lightning rod for anger from a frustrated and anxious country; that he has done a great deal of damage to the government he serves; and that it’s hard to think of another adviser for whom a prime minister has burned through this much political capital to save.
Polling by YouGov finds that an overwhelming majority of Britons think that Cummings broke the rules, and more than half think that he should resign. One survey even finds 55 percent of Conservative voters in favor of Cummings’s resignation. Another poll records a dramatic 20-point plunge in Johnson’s approval rating in just four days. Conservative MPs report a deluge of complaints from their constituents. Several dozen backbench Conservatives, moreover, have called for Cummings’s resignation. The government has endured days of extremely bad press—including from ordinarily supportive newspapers.
And yet, Cummings remains in his post, with Johnson appearing determined to keep his most trusted advisor by his side. To do so, he is gambling with the good will of the British people in the middle of a public-health crisis, the moral authority that the government needs to manage this crisis effectively, and confidence in his fitness for the job. Once lost, these things are difficult for governments to regain.
It’s not hard to understand why Johnson trusts Cummings, who helped mastermind the win for the Vote Leave campaign led by Johnson in the 2016 referendum. He was at the prime minister’s side when he triumphed in last December’s general election. But advisers are, by definition, disposable. Johnson’s actions suggest that Cummings is the exception to that rule, and that says a lot about the prime minister — none of it flattering. It reveals a leader not necessarily confident in his own ability to lead. Johnson’s first year or so in office contained moments of triumph—a renegotiated Brexit deal, general-election victory—but since those wins, his administration has stumbled rather than jumping headfirst into the reforms that it claims are necessary to “level up” Britain.
Such hesitancy shows in the mismanagement of this scandal, which bolsters the claims of Johnson and Cummings’s fiercest critics. Diehard Remainers have spent years building up Cummings as the master of the dark arts who ruined their country, a sinister manipulator pulling the strings from behind the scenes. That’s an exaggeration of his power, but Johnson isn’t doing what it takes to remind the country who answers to whom.
A charitable explanation of Johnson’s refusal to budge is that he doesn’t think Cummings has done anything wrong, and that, as a matter of principle, he is determined to hold the line against calls for resignation that he thinks are hypocritical and sanctimonious. Cummings has enemies, and perhaps Johnson feels loyalty to his adviser. But even if that explains Johnson’s actions, Downing Street has handled the scandal terribly, reacting with high-handedness when it first broke, denying details that were subsequently confirmed, and mistakenly thinking that it would all blow over within a few days. More important, ignoring the unforgiving rules of contemporary politics—rules that the Johnson government is unlikely to change—seems hopelessly naïve.
In the past, Cummings picked up on the political class’s blind spots and distilled public frustrations into potent messages: “Take Back Control” in 2016, “Get Brexit Done” three years later. Johnson, too, is a figure who has found success by sweeping aside insider hang-ups and listening to the country. This time, the slogan was “Stay home, protect the NHS.” The government has tried to paint the question of whether Cummings followed that advice as an insider obsession, but that’s not how it’s being received. The respect that Cummings commands in Westminster ultimately derives from his talent for reading the public mood—and the most damaging element of this scandal is how badly Johnson and Cummings appear to have misread it in this instance. They’re paying a high price for doing so.
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