The damage is already done: even if Cummings were to go now, the trust that the prime minister needs to lead the country out of lockdown has evaporated. Yet if Cummings stays on, that will only make matters worse – and ministers will only be more distracted from their essential tasks of controlling the virus while trying to protect jobs. Johnson has ensured the worst of all worlds.
Either way, the Cummings project is over. The one thing, above all, that Cummings had was a brilliant understanding of what politics looked like to non-political people. He cut his political teeth campaigning against a regional assembly for the north east in 2004, portraying it as a job creation scheme for the New Labour political class. He won the Brexit referendum by defining it as a stand for national independence against an unpatriotic establishment, including all parties in parliament, the TUC, CBI, Barack Obama and the Pope. He won last year’s election on the question of parliament trying to frustrate the will of the people.
He presented Johnson, the caricature of elitism, as on the side of the people against the elite. In recent months Johnson has capitalised on this, presenting himself as Everyman when he went down with the coronavirus, relying on the NHS like the rest of us.
All that has now been thrown away. Cummings once portrayed the London establishment as a class apart, out of touch with the common sense of the British people. Now he has become the London establishment.
Yesterday’s press conference was his Animal Farm moment. As the creatures outside peered in at the window of 10 Downing Street, they looked from man to pig, and realised that some animals were more equal than others.
It was a turning point for this government. The response of public opinion was immediate and negative. Overwhelmingly, people believe that there is one rule for the prime minister’s circle and another for everybody else. It doesn’t matter whether Johnson thinks they are mistaken in that belief: it makes it impossible for him to present himself as on the side of the people.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in 37 years in the House of Commons,” said Roger Gale, a loyalist Conservative MP, this morning. He was appalled at the damage it was doing to “the cause”, which was not the party or the government but the defeat of coronavirus.
That ought to be the point. If people don’t trust the government, how can it ask the schools to reopen? How can it ask people to co-operate with “track, trace and isolate”? How can it do any of the things needed to get the economy going and save people’s jobs?
Once trust has gone, it is hard to get it back, but I still think it would be better for the country if Cummings were to go now. Johnson could say that he had stood by him out of misguided loyalty, but that he had decided, upon reflection, and so on. Tory MPs would be placated. Gale said: “I give one mark to anyone who stands by their friend.” Public opinion, in general, would probably not be inclined to forgive and forget, but it would at least allow Johnson to start to rebuild.
It is possible that the prime minister will continue to resist the outcry. He may even be able to give a more persuasive argument as to why Cummings’s trip to Durham was justified under the lockdown rules, although I think most people have made up their minds about that. But if Johnson is serious about keeping his chief adviser, it will set up an important test of our democracy.
The last time there was such a reaction of public opinion against a government was the poll tax in 1990 (Gale may have forgotten that in his 37 year retrospective), and that destroyed Margaret Thatcher. She had been prime minister for a long time, and there was an election looming.
But the current mood among Tory MPs is extraordinary, responding to the fury of their constituents. If Johnson tried to tough it out, I am not sure we could rule out an attempt to depose him. Even if we do not get that far, the cost of keeping Cummings must be too great. It would make the next election harder to win, and Johnson’s place in history, already shadowed by coronavirus, more insecure. Leaving aside the national interest, it is strongly in the prime minister’s personal interest to cut Cummings loose.
Much damage has been done, but Johnson has a powerful incentive to avoid sustaining any more.