Boris Johnson has unveiled the next lifting of lockdown measures but the details have been overshadowed by the continuing furore surrounding his most senior adviser’s breach of lockdown rules.
Dominic Cummings claimed “exceptional circumstances” means he behaved “responsibly and legally” and therefore did not breach the rules he helped set, in an extraordinary press conference today at Downing Street.
The double-press conference was supposed to have been a “classic political one-two” where the first would draw a line under the issue with the second moving the focus and story on to the government’s announcement of further retail openings in June with the easing of lockdown measures.
Journalists socially distanced in the Rose Garden
However, the PM’s address followed too soon after Cummings’ press conference, which was still being digested, analysed and framed by the media for public consumption/discussion by the time Johnson took to the podium inside No10.
Outside, Cummings’ gave a lengthy account of his trip to Durham and answered numerous questions from journalists socially-distanced in the revered Downing Street Rose Gardens – a setting associated with major figures and historical moments, such as President Obama’s speech during his state visit and when it provided the backdrop for ‘Dave and Nick’ (Cameron and Clegg) to announce the forming of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government in 2010.
Many political pundits pointed out how “highly unusual” it was to have the press gathered to hear a government adviser defend their actions. But then it was also “highly unusual” for a PM to hold a press conference less than 24 hours earlier to publicly back and defend an aide caught breaching the government’s lockdown rules while updating the nation about the coronavirus crisis. And then follow that with another press conference some 90 minutes after the aide’s.
Cummings is no ordinary adviser
Because Cummings is no ordinary adviser and his importance to the PM has been underlined, highlighted, embossed and then chiselled in stone by the defence given to his chief aide, backed up with support from senior cabinet ministers and reinforced by the PM’s televised defence last night.
The key architect of the Leave campaign with a professed disdain for politicians and especially the civil service system has many enemies, but importantly Cummings has the PM’s support having delivered him an 80-strong majority in December’s get Brexit done’ general election – where Johnson won a bigger share of the vote than Tony Blair ever managed.
So influential and known is Cummings that he was already the subject of a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, long before Johnson got the keys to No10. His mastery of social media, sloganeering and “cutting through” the politics to deliver the – invariably ‘populist’ – message, is seen as the key to his success, and the reason he’s so valued by the PM.
Cummings has not offered his resignation and Johnson has not asked for it.
But plenty of others – from all sides of the political divide – have, and while Cummings’ performance in the Rose Garden (described as “the most humane I’ve ever seen him,” by one commentator who’s known him “many years”) may have persuaded some to back his version of events, it has signally failed to draw a line under the story and only further entrenched those angered not only by his breach of lockdown rules, but by the lack of an apology, remorse or any regret expressed today.
#Specsavers and ‘cut-through messaging’
Twitter remains a battleground with #Cummings, #Specsavers (referring to his “test drive” to Barnard Castle after his experiencing eyesight problems), #SackBorisAndDom and #ScumMedia all trending this evening (circa 9.30pm).
Cummings will be busily analysing the data and fighting back to hang on to his position. As the master of “cut-through messaging” he will be acutely aware of the implications if this issue continues to dominate the news agenda.
Not just for his position or the reputation and future of his boss in No10, but far more importantly, on the country’s continuing struggle to halt the spread of coronavirus.
‘PM’s decision has very serious consequences’ – Sturgeon
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon explained those implications and said Johnson should reflect on his decision to back rather than sack his aide.
“I think he’s come to the wrong judgement,” Sturgeon told BBC News.
She sacked Scotland’s chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood for breaching lockdown rules and said Johnson’s backing of his top aide could have “very serious” consequences.
As the country moves into the next phases of lifting the lockdown, public trust in the integrity of the government’s advice will be “vital”, said Sturgeon.
But the public will be impacted by the perception there is “one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us”, and could be less likely to follow the government’s updated advice and new rules at the “crucial time” they are being relaxed.
Even before Cummings’ press conference, Sturgeon tweeted: “I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.
“That’s the judgment I and, to her credit, Catherine Calderwood reached. PM and Cummings should do likewise.”
June 1 and 14 – lifting the lockdown
This evening #downingstreetbriefings was also trending on Twitter with some debate around the measures announced by Johnson in his daily Downing Street coronavirus press conference.
Johnson announced that on June 1 car showrooms and outdoor markets will be allowed to reopen. “We know the transmission of the virus is lower outdoors,” explained the PM, announcing other retailers will open on June 14.
This is contingent on progress against the five tests, which includes the R-rate, and is only applicable to premises that are “Covid secure”
The questions that followed were not about the June dates to come but the instead about the movements of his most senior aide and a clearly frustrated Johnson told ITV’s Robert Peston that Cummings had just delivered a substantial “autobiography” of the events between March 27 to the April 14 so he had little else to add.
‘Single best thing you can do: wash your hands’ – PM
“People will have to make their minds up,” said Johnson. “I think he acted reasonably and legally and like I said yesterday, with integrity and care for his family.”
Before packing up and departing the lectern, the PM reiterated the public health message, the “single best thing you can do to stop transmission of this virus” Johnson said, is to: “wash your hands.”
If only the continuing controversy around Cummings could be as easily contained.