The trouble with politics is that it all depends on your point of view. The current brouhaha over the recent behaviour of Dominic Cummings, the UK Prime Minister’s specialist adviser is a case in point. The facts are fairly simple and have been widely reported in the mainstream media.
Mr Cummings drove his wife and four-year-old child 260 miles to his parents’ Durham farm on March 27th, because he believed his wife was suffering from coronavirus; he started suffering symptoms of coronavirus the next day, when he self-isolated. This was less than a week after the Prime Minister had declared “a national emergency” on March 23, when he initiated the coronavirus lockdown and people were advised to “stay at home, support the NHS and save lives ”. In his TV address to the nation he explicitly stated “ people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes” and went on to say “these are the only reasons you should leave your home.”
Almost two months later (May 25th), in a rare public statement from the rose garden of No 10 Downing Street Mr Cummings defended his actions, the main argument being that he was seeking care for his child. He also said that “he did not regret what he did” and believed he had acted “reasonably” and within the law. [Unlike non-political adviser such as Professor Neil Ferguson and Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, who both resigned after being challenged for breaking lockdown rules, he is currently still in post.]
Unfortunately, any political controversy sparks off a stream of claims and counter claims, justifications and criticisms that tend to deflect from the main issues that should be considered. In this specific case there has been support for Dominic Cummings from fellow Ministers such as Michael Gove and criticism from the opposition parties and from journalists such as Piers Morgan, many of whom have been on the receiving end of rude remarks from Mr Cummings. . Interestingly there have also been calls for his removal from 44 Conservative MPs, a not inconsiderable number.The Prime Minister stated that Mr Cummings did not flout the lockdown because he had been “travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus.”
The crux of the matter is that the British public have found the behaviour of Dominic Cummings offensive and many people feel that they, ordinary members of the public, have made large personal sacrifices to comply with coronavirus restrictions. By contrast Mr Cummings, a key member of the group that laid down the lockdown rules is seen to be above the law.
People’s anger over the actions of Mr Cummings, his lack of repentance or apology and the defence of his behaviour by the Prime Minister and other Government ministers have been reflected in several ways. There has been a flood of message on social media, petitions for his resignation have gathered and a startling drop in opinion ratings for the Prime Minister and his Government. During the first month of lockdown approval ratings were stable at c. 40% but fell from 19% to -1% over the past few days over the Dominic Cummings affair. It is ironic that if it were not for lockdown there might have been demonstrations and marches to protest.
The fact that this effect has been so seismic, is perhaps a reflection both on the power and influence of chief advisers within Government but also the concern of the public about this. Governments have always used specialist advisers in many fields such as health and agriculture so that technical advice from people with acknowledged expertise in a specific area can be given to guide the Government of the day. The members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other committees advising on epidemiology and on hospital Covid-19 infection are examples. these people are independent non-political advisers.
However, specialist advisers, who assist Government ministers, are political appointees and act in a personal and party-orientated capacity. First introduced by Harold Wilson in the labour Government of 1964, their number and influence has increased steadily. Whilst often not household names some have been well known either because of their influence or because of their involvement in specific crises. Alistair Campbell, the Press Secretary (spin doctor) for Tony Blair crucially involved in making responses to the media during the Iraq war.
At present there are 109 special advisers in government of whom 44 work for Boris Johnson. In February 2020, Sajid Javid, newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer felt the brunt of adviser power when he was asked to replace his team of aides with personnel chosen by No 10. He refused and resigned.
All this begs the question of whether the current political structure is healthy or needs redesigning. The much-vaunted British parliamentary system, which evolved over centuries, was based on a parliament, (answerable to the electorate only at elections) with an impartial civil service providing the information on which decisions were based. However this system has been in considerable jeopardy for at least two decades due to the concentration of control within a narrow circle of ministers, thereby diminishing the importance of parliament and the increasing importance of the third tier of political advisers, who are not accountable to the public.
Good Government depends on trust, the trust of the public. This need for Government to have the backing of the public is magnified enormously in the current situation, when people are being asked to act selflessly in many ways (staying away from dying loved ones, obeying the restriction rules, cooperating with track and trace system etc.). Cooperation is vital in the efforts of the whole country to help contain further spread of the coronavirus. Effective government on a world stage, which we will need in coming times, also depends on how those outside our country view the actions of our government.
Whether you agree or disagree with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings will depend on your point of view. However, we should seek a better system of using specialist advisers, so that the powers they have are balanced by making them more accountable, not just to their individual bosses.
When the bushfire of the current scandal has burnt out and we are sifting through the ashes, should we not at least consider whether our current system has the right checks and balances and also learn how the rest of the world views us.
Written 26-28 May 2020