Explainer

Britain Hates Johnson’s Machiavelli

Conservative Party advisor Dominic Cummings has drawn national wrath over a seemingly minor scandal.

Dominic Cummings
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top advisor Dominic Cummings leaves his residence in London on May 26. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party is facing a self-generated crisis after Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his old friend and special advisor Dominic Cummings, who broke lockdown rules at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the country. But why is everyone so mad about what, from the outside, seems like a minor scandal at worst? Foreign Policy has you covered.


Who is Dominic Cummings, anyway?

Think Steve Bannon circa 2017, before the senior counselor to U.S. President Donald Trump disappeared into the bucket of the administration’s many high-profile departures, but with less baggage. Cummings is a right-wing political strategist who claimed credit for the campaign that took Britain out of the European Union. Like Bannon, winning an unlikely vote made him a boogeyman for the other side and gave him a largely undeserved reputation for cunning. Since then, he’s acted as a kind of floating advisor for the Tory party, peddling half-baked theories about “Odyssean education” and “super-forecasters.”

Most critically, though, Cummings is extremely close to the U.K.’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson. After Johnson became prime minister, Cummings was brought on board as a special advisor. He did not prove a popular or successful colleague, and previous criticisms focused on his unelected nature, his behind-the-scenes power, and his hiring of a racist blogger for his advisory unit.


What did he do wrong this time?

The scandal that looks like it might actually bring him down—and isn’t helping Johnson—is one that would be utterly banal in normal times: When Cummings and his wife were both symptomatic with COVID-19, he drove 260 miles from London with her and their children to stay with his parents in the northern city of Durham, England. The excursion went against the government’s own quarantine regulations, which tell people to stay in their own homes and not risk endangering others. An initial wave of denials of the story looked particularly flimsy after it then emerged that he’d violated the rules at least one more time, making a trip out with his children and wife from Durham to a local tourist attraction some distance away.

Britain’s lockdown isn’t as tough as some on mainland Europe, such as those in Italy and Spain, but more than 14,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules. Prominent figures, including the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson and Scottish chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood, have resigned from their jobs over breaking lockdown regulations. Cummings, however, seems determined to weather this out. Senior figures in the Conservative Party, reportedly fuming in private, were nevertheless put forward to defend him in public, leaving only a few stray backbenchers to condemn his behavior. The BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg trotted out a defense from a source that sounded suspiciously like Cummings—or at least someone from within his family.

When Johnson publicly came to his friend’s defense in a press conference on Sunday evening, however, it only threw fuel on the fire. Johnson’s speech claiming that Cummings “acted like any father” and behaved “legally” and “responsibly” was widely seen as a disaster, even by a British press usually friendly to the Tories. The Daily Mail, one of the highest-circulation British tabloids and a consistent supporter of the Conservatives, blasted the speech on Monday morning’s front page and has laid into Cummings at length. In a rapidly deleted tweet, the British Civil Service’s official account called the government “arrogant and offensive.” Cummings, meanwhile, was jeered at in the street as he walked home.

In an extraordinary move, Cummings himself went on to give a press conference Monday afternoon in the rose garden at No. 10 Downing St., the location usually used by prime ministers to address the nation. No special advisor has ever given such a conference before. The conference was defensive and unapologetic, with Cummings telling the press “I don’t regret what I did and as I said, I think reasonable people may well disagree about how I thought about what to do in those circumstances, but I think what I did was actually reasonable.”


Why is everyone so angry?

Cummings’s drive to Durham might seem trifling compared to pandemic scandals elsewhere in the world, such as politicians profiteering or leaders from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to the United States’ Donald Trump promoting denialist fantasies. But Britain is now two months into a lockdown that was imposed after a deadly delay thanks to the government’s pursuit of a failed strategy to inculcate herd immunity among the public, backed by Cummings. More than 36,000 people are dead—the highest number in Europe. And Cummings is said to have argued—a charge he denies—that “if some pensioners die, too bad.”

Tens of millions of people have been cut off from seeing family, with many unable to visit their own sick parents or even offer comfort at funerals. Seeing somebody flaunting the rules and getting away with it is a lightning rod for public anger, especially in a class-ridden country. As a Labour Party spokesperson put it, “people do not expect there to be one rule for them and another rule for Dominic Cummings.” It doesn’t help that Dominic is a decidedly posh name, or that by his own account he retreated to an “isolated cottage on my father’s farm.” Doctors and public health advocates are also angry at the mixed signals sent by the government. Cummings has offered a range of excuses, from the need for help with child care to supporting his parents as they grieve a recently deceased uncle; the claims haven’t sat well with a public that has borne many worse hardships in isolation.

Cummings is receiving criticism from both sides of the British aisle: from people who support the lockdowns and are angry at his role in the delay and rule-breaking, and from people who are against the lockdowns and blame him for being part of the government that imposed them while he breaks them himself.


So why is Johnson retaining Cummings?

That may be the most puzzling thing about the scandal. Why is the prime minister so desperate to defend a largely unpopular figure, with no seeming gain to himself? Even if Cummings resigned, it’s hardly unknown for such advisors to keep the same role without the official position, or to sneak in the back door six months or a year later. There’s nothing stopping Johnson from calling Cummings for advice even if he quits.

The most likely explanation seems to be that Johnson finds the idea of any of his friends being held accountable abhorrent. This is a leader whose entire career, after all, has been built on shirking responsibility, from his own rehiring after being fired for making up quotes as a young journalist to his serial adultery, including sleeping with his staff while editor of the Spectator and fathering numerous children from affairs. Johnson’s own loyalty to his friends, meanwhile, supersedes the law, as when he gave the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy a journalist’s address so Guppy could send thugs to assault the reporter. Add onto that the overconfidence that left him hospitalized with the coronavirus after boasting about how many hands he’d been shaking.

Johnson may be convinced he can get away with it. Or he may turn on Cummings if it seems the public rage is too great. Either way, there will be plenty of other Tories watching hungrily from the sidelines, in a party that’s already gone through an unprecedented three prime ministers in four years of disastrous incompetence.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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