Monday afternoon, 25th May 2020. A beautiful, warm day on which to watch our new overlord make his first speech to the nation. I refer, of course, to Dominic Cummings's press conference.The Daily Mirror and the Guardian had revealed that Cummings had gone to stay in a family cottage near Durham at the end of March, and that he had also been seen in Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham. The country was under full lockdown at the time, with non-essential travel completely banned, so both trips appeared to break the law. Furthermore, his wife, Mary Wakefield, had published an article in the Spectator magazine towards the end of April which said that she had developed CV-19 symptoms on 27th March and he became ill with suspected CV-19 the following day. Wakefield described him as "lying
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Monday afternoon, 25th May 2020. A beautiful, warm day on which to watch our new overlord make his first speech to the nation. I refer, of course, to Dominic Cummings's press conference
The Daily Mirror and the Guardian had revealed that Cummings had gone to stay in a family cottage near Durham at the end of March, and that he had also been seen in Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham. The country was under full lockdown at the time, with non-essential travel completely banned, so both trips appeared to break the law.
Furthermore, his wife, Mary Wakefield, had published an article in the Spectator magazine towards the end of April which said that she had developed CV-19 symptoms on 27th March and he became ill with suspected CV-19 the following day. Wakefield described him as "lying doggo" for 10 days, too ill to move. Yet on 31st March, Cummings's father had confirmed to the police that his son was self-isolating in a property on his estate. So Cummings appeared to have driven to Durham while either his wife or both of them had symptoms of CV-19. This would violate the law requiring households which include people with symptoms to self-isolate for 14 days.
Before the conference, public pressure had been building for days for him either to resign or be sacked. He repeatedly refused to resign, and Government ministers - including the Prime Minister - defended him. But on Monday morning, Downing Street appeared to give in to pressure, announcing that Cummings would make a personal statement later that day. Some people expected him to announce his resignation. I didn't.
To the annoyance of people trying to organise their lives, the schedule wasn't issued for some time, was eventually set for 3 pm, and then delayed until 4 pm. That day, the Prime Minister was leading the coronavirus update at 5 pm. So the statement had to be over by then. But there was supposed to be a substantial Q&A afterwards. It was all looking a bit tight.
And it was to get much tighter. Growling about having our plans for the day disrupted, we all signed on to watch. 4 pm came and went, but there was no sign of the great man. The minutes ticked on. 4.10...4.15...4.20..... we started to sing "Why are we waiting," socially distanced of course.
He finally strolled in at 4.30. "Sorry I'm late," he muttered as he sat down at the table. But he didn't give any explanation for his tardiness. He simply got on with reading his prepared statement.
As I listened to Cummings reading out his statement, I had a strange feeling that the ground was no longer solid. I felt as if I was floundering in a swamp of misinformation, trying to find something secure to hang on to. My head struggled to make sense of what he was saying. Too many explanations. Too much complexity. Obfuscation. Confusion.
I wasn't alone. Almost all of the commentary since then has focused on the content of his statement. Picking it to pieces has become a national sport. His explanations for his actions fit the known facts, but they don't make logical sense. The statement creates more questions than it answers. Why did he think his wife and child were at risk from photographers and protestors, when London was under strict lockdown and any crowds would have been dispersed by police? Why didn't he ask for security protection from the police? Why, if his house was constantly the subject of media interest, are there no photographs of him driving off with wife, child and a fully loaded car? Why didn't he even try to find child care in London? How did he manage to drive for five hours without stopping, with a sick wife and a four-year-child in the car? Why did he think teenage nieces living with their mother would be more appropriate child carers than family members in London? Why.....why.....how.....why......why....The questions simply keep coming.
Stop. Take a step back, and remember who he is. He's the Vote Leave mastermind. The person who, as Emily Maitlis put it in her powerful opening remarks on Newsnight
, always "got" public opinion. Or, more accurately, manipulated it. And he's just done it again. We are all doing exactly what he wants - talking about the petty details of his statement and completely missing the point.
The whole thing was staged. It was a show. And as with all shows, it is not the content that matters, but the presentation.
The content of Cummings' statement was clearly designed to ward off legal action. And it may succeed, though the Barnard Castle jolly seems to sail decidedly close to the wind. But he could simply have issued a written statement. Indeed, for a special advisor to the government, this would have been a more appropriate course of action than a dramatic solo appearance. By opting for the latter, he seized the limelight.
Right from the start, the way the Cummings Show was presented signalled its true purpose. When the Q&A continued past 5 pm, as it was inevitably going to, the coronavirus update led by the Prime Minister had to be delayed. By being half an hour late for an already rescheduled appearance, Cummings had forced the Prime Minister to give way to him. A clearer display of passive-aggressive dominance is hard to imagine.
Then there was the interesting choice of location. The Rose Garden of no.10 Downing Street. Dominic Cummings, an unelected bureaucrat, addressed the nation from the place where another person with the initials DC had announced the deal that would make him prime minister - the person whose power was crushed by Vote Leave's victory in the 2016 referendum. Please don't tell me this was unintentional.
And there's the staging, too. Cummings sat at a table throughout. But the journalists asking questions had to stand. I found myself wondering if they should walk backwards as they left his presence. With the sound off, it all looked very much like an audience with royalty.
Of course, Cummings played the role of beleaguered government official desperately trying to keep his job. And he played it well, too. Hunched shoulders, anxious expression, fidgety, stuttering - one friend of mine commented that he looked as if someone had given him a right telling-off. He had even toned down his customary anarchic appearance, doffing the trademark beanie hat and scruffy T-shirt in favour of a casual shirt and trousers. But I have worked in the performing arts long enough to recognise acting when I see it. His apparent contrition was totally fake. And he had trouble maintaining his character in the questions. Now and then, when someone asked him a question he didn't like, he showed flashes of anger and contempt.
But it was after the end of the show that the mask really slipped. As the audience dispersed, Cummings drained his water glass, then slid it casually across the table. And as he walked off the stage, he smirked
In fact, he had already won before the conference. At some point in the last few days - we don't know exactly when - Johnson effectively ceded power to Cummings. It is Cummings who keeps him in power, Cummings who calls the shots. Despite the humiliation of being sidelined by Cummings, Johnson has nevertheless rallied the troops behind him. The whips are now forcing ministers and backbenchers to support Cummings, for example by issuing boilerplate tweets. Those who refuse to cooperate will lose their jobs, as has already happened to other politicians who crossed Cummings. They may even have the whip withdrawn. After all, Johnson's majority is easily big enough to sustain a few losses.
Cummings has now achieved his aim. He has established himself as the real power in the U.K. He is effectively above the law. The institutions of government, the civil servants we employ, the politicians we elect - all are now subservient to, and controlled by, him. Even some of his supporters are uncomfortable about such concentration of power in his hands: Paul Goodman, for example, hopes that
Cummings will in time give up his preferred model of "wielding centralised power via pliant ministers" in favour of "strong Cabinet ministers exercising the freedom to run their own departments." But no-one who has as much hunger for power as Dominic Cummings ever relinquishes it voluntarily, and Johnson has proved himself too weak to take it from him.
Britain will now be run by puppet politicians controlled by a ruthless, manipulative, unaccountable mastermind. In the Rose Garden, democracy died.