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Svengali of British Politics Kicked a Lockdown Beehive

(CN) — He's been called a political Svengali and Rasputin, one of the world's most influential behind-the-scenes political figures, the ruthless right-wing mastermind behind the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union and the man who brought Boris Johnson into No. 10 Downing Street.

Now, this wily and wiry character, Johnson's 48-year-old top aide Dominic Cummings, is at the center of a political storm that is engulfing the U.K. government at a moment when it can least afford an erosion of confidence as it seeks to cross waters made chaotic and turbulent by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

Cummings isn't accused of high crimes or some deviant action. Instead, he's accused of breaking stay-at-home lockdown rules when he fled London on March 27 with his wife and 4-year-old boy and drove 260 miles to stay at a cottage on his parents' farm in County Durham in northeast England. Later, on Easter Sunday, he drove his wife and child to historic Barnard Castle, a 30-minute drive from his family's home in Durham.

Making this blunder worse, he and his wife, a conservative journalist and baronet's daughter, were sick, most likely after Cummings contracted the coronavirus while in Downing Street. He was among several top government officials who fell sick, including Johnson, from Covid-19. The wave of sickness inside Downing Street compounded a sense that the U.K.'s response to the pandemic was slow, incompetent and led to many more deaths.

Cummings plays a big role in this too. He has been accused of being partly responsible for the U.K.'s delay in imposing a lockdown, which government advisers admit led to a higher death count. The U.K. has Europe's highest death toll with more than 37,500 fatalities, though the figure is likely much higher due to a lag in reporting.

Cummings' late-night dash away from London slowly came to light and then broke last weekend as media reports revealed new details – though also allegedly reported factual mistakes – on his whereabouts and actions between March 27 and April 14.

Since then, the public's anger over Cummings’ actions and his boss' refusal to sack him has only snowballed. It's a state of affairs that even threatens to do lasting damage to Johnson's nascent populist Tory right-wing government that seemed invincible only three months ago before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The erosion of trust is profound. More than 60 members of Johnson's Conservative Party are calling for Cummings to go, including some high-profile names. Even conservative newspapers have denounced Cummings and demanded he “do his duty” and resign.

Graffiti condemning Cummings has sprung up as have protest signs. Under one roadway sign in London emblazoned with the government's message to “Stay Alert Control the Virus Save Lives,” someone tacked up a handmade sign with the words: “Except Dominic Cummings.”

Demonstrators now stage themselves outside Downing Street holding signs mocking Johnson's sloganeering over Brexit: “Take Back Control Sack Him Now!” During the Brexit debates, Cummings is credited with crafting the notion that Britons would “take back control” of their government by leaving the EU and its institutions. Brexit and Cummings' role in leading the campaign against the EU have deeply scarred the U.K. and left it bitterly divided. Johnson and Cummings used populist anti-elitist messages to win the Brexit referendum and since taking over the government they have won the hearts of many working-class voters by promising to lead a “people's government.”

But working-class voters, many of whom voted for the Tories for the first time in December elections to “get Brexit done” and elect Johnson, now may be souring on Johnson's populist promises and the image of Cummings fleeing London during the lockdown for a country home has a lot to do that.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's senior aide Dominic Cummings leaves his north London home, Monday May 25, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is standing by his top aide, Cummings, who is accused of breaking lockdown rules by traveling 250 miles (400 km) to his parents’ house while coming down with COVID-19. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

Cummings' apparent flouting of lockdown rules is an insult to the English sense of fairness. While tens of millions of others were told to not leave their homes even for a loved one's funeral, Cummings was driving all the way across the country while sick with Covid-19 to be closer to his family.

In an unexpected turn of events, Johnson's solid popularity is sinking, according to polls. The Tories too are suffering with support dropping by about 9% since the Cummings scandal broke and pundits are asking whether Johnson's own premiership is at risk because of his refusal to cut ties with Cummings.   

Still, Johnson is standing fast by his political maverick.

“I think he has acted in every respect responsibly and legally and with integrity,” Johnson said at a recent news conference.

The Labour Party's new leader, Keir Starmer, is using the scandal to sharpen his attacks.

“This was a huge test for the prime minister and he has failed that test. He hasn't sacked Mr. Cummings; he hasn't called for an investigation and he's treating the British public with contempt,” Starmer said.

Days of media coverage have left Cummings looking like a harassed but ridiculous figure as packs of photographers, video crews and journalists swarm him as he comes and goes from his London home and Downing Street – dressed as he invariably is in casual clothes.

“Why aren't you guys social distancing?” he snarled at a posse of journalists outside his home.

On Monday, in an attempt to nip the growing scandal in the bud, Cummings held a news conference in the Rose Garden of Downing Street. Set to a background of flowers infused with sunlight, he sat before the media for an hour, telling his side of the story and answering questions from reporters channeling the frustration and anger of a nation sensing there are two sets of rules: one for the rich and well-connected and one for everyone else.

He said he chose to drive to his family farm because he feared he and his wife would become so ill as to not be able to look after their child. Going home, in this case, was “reasonable and sensible” because they could stay in a cottage separate from his parents and sister, he said. The plan also involved having a 17-year-old niece look after his child if he and his wife became very sick, he said. He added that on the trip north they did not stop and had no contact with others.

But he had to explain something else: Why was he seen driving with his wife and child on Easter Sunday, April 12, near Barnard Castle? They had been spotted sitting next to a river in the area too. As it happened, it was also his wife's birthday.

His explanation for this side trip was less than convincing. He said that by April 12 he was feeling well and had been told by doctors he could return to work in London. But, he said, during his sickness his eyesight had felt “weird” and he and his wife decided it was prudent to see if he could drive before embarking on a five-hour trip to London. Thus, they chose to do a test drive to Barnard Castle, he argued.

“I know the British people hate the idea of unfairness,” he said. But he said he had acted “reasonably and legally.” He said the lockdown rules he helped craft allowed people with small children to do exactly what he had done.

“No, I don't regret what I did,” he said. “I think what I did was actually reasonable in these circumstances.”


Reporters grilled him, telling him people are furious.

Cummings, no friend of the media, replied that the public's anger was the result of erroneous media coverage.

“If you're someone sitting at home watching the media over the last three days, I think a lot of people would be very angry, and I understand that,” he said.

In this photo issued by 10 Downing Street, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus in Downing Street, London, Sunday May 24, 2020. Boris Johnson says he won't fire his chief aide Dominic Cummings for allegedly violating the national coronavirus lockdown rules that he helped to create. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street via AP)

But he said the coverage has been wrong, including suggestions that he was sightseeing around Barnard Castle, taking walks in violation of lockdown orders and endangering his family and others.

He also rejected news reports alleging he downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus at the outset of the outbreak and said callously during one meeting that he didn't care whether elderly people died from the disease. Cummings also denied that he favored the idea of letting the virus spread throughout the population in order to build up widespread immunity, a concept known as “herd immunity.” U.K. government experts initially touted this strategy before the country imposed a lockdown.

“A lot of media reports tried to claim that I sort of brushed [the virus] off,” he said. “A lot of things written about that are completely wrong.”

He said news reports are to blame for turning the public against him. “That has caused a lot of anger. I know, people have shouted at me in the street.”

One reporter pointedly asked him: “This was meant to be the people's government. Isn't it that you've badly misjudged the public mood on this? … How can you even countenance now staying on and not resigning?”

Calmly, he rejected that and said he had not “broken the spirit” of the lockdown orders and had not sought to take advantage of loopholes in the rules.

“I don't think there is one rule for me and one rule for other people,” he said.

But years of ruthless politics by Cummings, including re-engineering the Tory party to rid it of stalwart members opposed to Brexit, seem to be coming back to bite him as politicians from his own party charge his actions undermine the moral authority of the government.

Johnson has been trying to get the country to “move on” and stop picking apart Cummings' actions. He dismissed calls for an independent investigation and rejected criticisms that keeping Cummings as his chief adviser only encourages the public to flout public health rules too.

“The problem is,” said Labour member Yvette Cooper during a committee meeting with Johnson, “you are putting your political concerns ahead of clear public health messages. You have a choice between protecting Dominic Cummings or putting the national interest first. Which will it be, prime minister?”

When the government announced it would start a program on Thursday morning to contact people who have come into touch with infected individuals and tell them to self-isolate, critics howled that the government was cynically moving up the program's start date to distract the public from the Cummings scandal. The program is a step toward easing the lockdown.

But the scandal isn't going away just yet. On Thursday, Durham police issued their findings into the case over Cummings' trip to Barnard Castle. Their verdict: There might have been “a minor breach” of the lockdown orders “that would have warranted police intervention.”

The brief police report sparked a new round of condemnation and demands for Cummings to go.

Even though he's spending a lot of political capital on Cummings, it doesn't seem that Johnson will ditch him anytime soon.

“It's almost like a bromance actually and he's integral to the revolution that they want to do,” said Andrew Pierce, an editor for the pro-Tory Daily Mail newspaper, on Sky News television. “They want to change the way Whitehall does business.”

On the same show, Kevin Maguire, an editor for the pro-Labour Daily Mirror newspaper, said the problem is that Johnson relies too much on Cummings because Johnson isn't able to govern without him.

“There is a psychological dependency from Johnson on Cummings,” he said. “Johnson likes being prime minister but he doesn't seem to like doing the job and the heavy lifting.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories:Government, Health, International

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