Just like he “urged everyone to find closure” regarding Brexit following his victory in elections last year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week urged everyone to “move on” from the Dominic Cummings saga. But just like then, it is easier said than done.
Cummings’ trip to Durham from London — and from there, a few days later, to a local castle – shortly after the Prime Minister had told people to stay at home in order to save lives is largely seen as a sign that, as many ordinary Britons have said, “there’s one law for us and another for 10 Downing Street.”
As Boris Johnson’s adviser, Dominic Cummings was part of the team that shaped the strict guidelines regarding the circumstances in which travel was allowed at the height of the pandemic.
The 260-mile trip to Durham, taken when ill with the Covid-19 virus (not just himself but also his wife), was his personal choice. He knowingly carried the virus with him the whole way, exposing everyone with whom he could have come into contact to the risk of catching it.
Police in Durham confirmed that he was in breach of guidelines, but only in reference to the 30-mile trip from his parents’ house in Durham to Barnard Castle, and even that, the police said, was a “minor” breach of the lockdown rules.
Cummings said he drove to Barnard Castle with his wife and child in the car because he wanted to test his eyesight to check whether it would be safe for him to drive back to London from Durham after the couple’s Covid-19 symptoms subsided.
However, according to various reports at least, his wife can drive (the Guardian quotes an article she wrote 20 years ago about a Texas trip where she mentioned driving every morning). But even if she could not, what kind of father would test their eyesight with their 4-year-old in the car?
Moreover, the Highway Code specifically mentions that drivers must not drive if their eyesight is impaired; it is hard to understand why police let this one go unnoticed in Cummings’ case.
Many people in Britain see the fact that Cummings did not resign for breaching the lockdown rules, as well as the police’s lenient attitude towards the issue, as proof that despite his claims to be on the side of the “people” versus the “elites,” Boris Johnson is more than happy to defend certain members of the elite when it suits him.
This should of course come as no surprise to those who know the way Boris Johnson thinks. For the UK prime minister, form is often more important than substance, and this may be a reason why he did not understand how deeply disappointed people will be by his decision not to fire Dominic Cummings.
Brexit and Cummings
However, the consequences of Johnson’s decision to back Cummings will be felt beyond the UK borders, as the UK’s credibility abroad will suffer even more after this incident.
Usually, in developed, Western societies officials who break the rules are forced to resign in order to avoid sending out the message that influence buys you impunity. The fact that Boris Johnson insisted that Cummings should stay in his job goes against this principle.
With Britain out of the European Union at the end of the year, negotiations to close trade deals to replace the ones the country had by virtue of membership will have to be ramped up.
But giving the impression that the UK government behaves more like the one of a developing, rather than developed country will not lead to a surge in confidence from foreign leaders, at a time when the country needs this confidence most.
The pound is already partly reflecting this concern. The pound’s exchange rate versus the euro has been weakening as the moment of a “no deal” Brexit approaches, after having strengthened immediately after the election that brought Boris Johnson the Prime Ministerial seat.
Just like nobody has really found closure regarding Brexit, it is hard to see how people can move on from the Dominic Cummings debate. And just like Brexit, the consequences of this controversy will reverberate in British society for a long time.