Boris Johnson’s shamelessness returns to fore in Cummings defence

PM emphatically backs chief adviser but by doing so he undermines coronavirus message

British prime minister Boris Johnson: not only exonerated Dominic Cummings, but praised him. Photograph:  Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson: not only exonerated Dominic Cummings, but praised him. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

 

As soon as it emerged from Downing Street on Sunday afternoon that Boris Johnson would front the daily press conference, it was clear that Dominic Cummings would keep his job. But in backing his chief adviser so emphatically and without reservation, Johnson has taken a bold political risk that highlights the essential nature of Cummings’s role in his premiership.

With a number of questions about Cummings’s trip to Durham still unanswered, notably whether he returned to the city after his family’s 14-day self-isolation, the prime minister could have taken a more cautious approach. He could have announced an inquiry into whether his adviser breached civil service rules, a stratagem that would have allowed him to avoid answering questions on the basis that it could prejudice the outcome of the investigation.

Johnson not only exonerated Cummings but praised him, saying he had acted “responsibly, and legally, and with integrity, and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives”. In its shamelessness, it was a return to the playbook of Johnson’s early months in office when he gloried in the disapproval of his political enemies over his prorogation of parliament and his (false) claim that he would not fulfil his legal obligation to seek a delay to Brexit.

Raw nerve

With an 80-seat majority and no election due until 2024, he is better placed than most prime ministers to ride out a political storm, even if public opinion is against him. But Cummings’s actions have struck the rawest of nerves after two months during which most of his less privileged fellow citizens have adhered strictly to the lockdown rules, sometimes at great emotional cost as they were unable to see dying relatives.

With Conservative MPs reporting that their inboxes are filled with angry messages from constituents, Labour leader Keir Starmer will ensure that the story remains under the political spotlight. But the more important impact of Johnson’s gamble could be on the government’s efforts to deal with coronavirus.

A few minutes after the press conference, the British civil service’s official account tweeted: “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

The tweet was deleted after nine minutes and the cabinet office said it was investigating it. Shortly afterwards, Stephen Reicher, one of the government’s advisers on behavioural science, said Johnson had trashed the advice on how to secure adherence to the measures needed to fight coronavirus.

“Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed. Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed. It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

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