Dominic Cummings is sorry (not sorry)
Boris Johnson’s top aide says he disagrees with those who believe he broke UK lockdown rules.by Emilio Casalicchio
LONDON — Dominic Cummings made his case to the nation — but he didn't apologize or resign.
Boris Johnson's top aide remained calm and collected Monday as he delivered a statement in the Downing Street rose garden — an unprecedented move for a government special adviser — and tackled hostile questions from the press.
But he insisted he had no regrets about his 260-mile drive during the coronavirus lockdown, nor about the 30-mile detour he took before making the trip home. He said he "behaved reasonably," adding: "I do not regret what I did."
In a separate press conference two hours later, Johnson himself took the same approach. "Yes of course I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel," he said. Translation: It's a shame this got out of hand but we have nothing to apologize for.
The British prime minister made clear he considers the case closed, after Cummings laid out the facts of his trip to Durham in great detail, noting it will be up to the public to "make up their minds." But the public might struggle to take the top adviser at his word.
Cummings is probably not the best person to convince Britain there isn't a “one rule for us and one rule for them” culture at the top of government.
He is famed in Westminster for bucking the system if it suits him. The man who helped end Britain's 40-year membership of the EU as boss of the Vote Leave campaign — and helped his boss suspend parliament unlawfully in the hope of forcing a no-deal Brexit — told the public: “I think the people like me who make the rules should be held accountable for their actions.”
It took around 72 hours of political turmoil before Cummings came clean about the two weeks in March that has gripped Britain since media reports first emerged on Friday night.
He told the press conference his wife became ill and the pair took the view it would be better to be near young family members who could help look after their four-year-old son. He added that threats of violence from the public convinced them being somewhere more remote would be a better bet.
Cummings said he drove to Durham in the northeast of England without stopping on the way and spent two weeks there while he and his wife recovered. Still feeling weak, Cummings drove the family 30 miles to the town of Barnard Castle to check whether a "weird" feeling in his eyes might prevent him from making the much longer journey back to London. On the way back, the family pulled over by some woods so his son could go to the toilet.
They made the trip to London the following day. Cummings said he thought they had stopped for petrol at some point but couldn't be sure.
As a seemingly humbled Cummings recounted the events, complete with personal touches about his family, he came across as a different character to the one Westminster and the nation has grown accustomed to.
Some see him as an evil genius pulling the strings in Downing Street — possibly more powerful than the PM himself. He has a reputation for arrogance, unwillingness to compromise and a dislike of what he sees as the political elite.
His running of Vote Leave, which was forced to pay £61,000 to electoral watchdogs for spending offenses and had its use of mass data gathering dramatized on TV (with Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings), cemented the image of someone willing to bend, or even break, the rules to get his way.
Cummings usually has no time for those who question him, and is unafraid to make his feelings clear. He has publicly insulted people over the years, including Conservative MPs who disagreed with him during the Vote Leave campaign, and journalists he accuses of not understanding true public sentiment.
A little of that was on show Monday night as he accused reporters of spreading the story in a way that would lead members of the public to conclude he undermined the rules — but he took the punches from journalists who questioned his actions and motives without hitting back.
During the hour-plus event, Cummings did not once apologize. But he came close when he admitted he should have fronted up to the nation sooner. “It would have been better to have made this statement earlier,” he said. He also suggested it was a mistake to head to Durham without telling his boss, the PM, in advance.
The usually scruffy aide, who often turns up to Downing Street in a T-shirt and hoodie, even wore a white shirt for the occasion (although it wasn't properly tucked in).
But the admission that he has access to a cottage with its own private woods did nothing to dispel the idea he is a member of the very elite he claims to hate.
Asked why Downing Street was so intent on taking a damaging PR hit to stand by Cummings, one senior government figure said it was "about the principle of who decides" who gets booted out of a job.
"There is a genuine view he acted with honor and integrity in the interests of his family and his desire to remain part of the machine while the PM was ill," the person said. "He should not have to go for that just because of the media hysteria."
Indeed, it's public hysteria Downing Street is worried about. And No. 10 sent Cummings toward the gunfire because the issue had gone way beyond the Westminster bubble. MPs, including numerous Conservatives, said their email inboxes were filling up with messages from angry constituents who felt Cummings had ridden roughshod over the rules.
Some people were unable to be with their parents when they died, missed funerals and were forced to grapple with COVID-19 and childcare without driving 260 miles to be with extended family.
Cummings said, to those who believe he broke the lockdown rules while they continued to respect them: “I know the intense hardship and sacrifice the country has had to go through, however, I respectfully disagree.”
Downing Street will hope the public and Tory backbenchers accept his argument and move on. Otherwise, as Cummings himself pointed out, the prime minister could be forced to let him go.