The first inkling of the story that shook Downing Street to its core came at the beginning of April.
It was the first Sunday of the month, a couple of hours before the Queen’s stirring promise to the nation that, however hard it was to endure separation from our loved ones, “we will meet again”. Boris Johnson was seriously ill, and that evening it would be announced that the prime minister had been admitted to hospital.
As it would turn out, however, one of the most consequential news events of the day was one almost nobody knew about.
The Guardian had been told that Dominic Cummings, the cartoon bogeyman of remain voters and the liberal left, was listening to Dancing Queen in his parents’ front drive.
The Cummings family property – briefly immortalised on Friday in a five-star Google Maps review as “Dom’s retreat” – is on a fast-moving A road with no path on the same side and almost completely hidden behind bushes.
The chances of anyone spotting a special adviser enjoying a bit of Abba during quarantine – much less recognising him – were slim enough that you could see why you might not be particularly worried about it. But as it happened, someone did see. And they wanted the Guardian to know.
Could Dominic Cummings, the architect of the “Stay home” campaign that every minister was imploring the nation to follow, really have gone to Durham? The Guardian asked a straightforward question of No 10. The response was enough to make you wonder: “It’ll be a no comment on that one. We wouldn’t get into locations of individual members of staff.”
That oddly evasive reply warranted further investigation. And by the end of that week, there was enough corroborating detail to go back to Downing Street.
A new set of questions about the senior adviser’s locations, now loaded with specific details, was again met with a flat refusal to comment.
It was Friday, 10 April. Exactly six weeks later, when the Guardian and Daily Mirror made a final approach for comment before that evening’s publication, Downing Street would complain that they had not been given enough time.
Over the intervening period, as hundreds more deaths were reported each day and the rest of the country wondered when the dull nightmare of lockdown would end, the story rushed forward and receded in unpredictable ways.
The attempts to put the media off the scent, however, were not confined to gnomic remarks from Downing Street, which at one point had told another journalist that Cummings was “at home”.
Cummings’ wife, Mary Wakefield, wrote a piece for the Spectator (subscription) – which she also read out on Radio 4 – that was so artfully constructed that on a casual read it seemed to rule out the possibility that the family had left their home at all.
And surely Cummings would think it foolish to write a sidebar to this article, reflecting on the same period, if the family idyll he described was more than 250 miles from home?
On a second look, though, both articles were curiously devoid of geographical specifics, until Wakefield finally referred to the family “emerging … into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown”. The line implied they had been cocooned within the capital all along but, tantalisingly, stopped short of saying so outright.
Downing Street’s reticence to come clean was understandable.
In early May, the government scientist Prof Neil Ferguson was forced to resign after the Daily Telegraph splashed on the revelation that his lover had visited him at home. Cabinet ministers jumped on the indiscretion, proclaiming he was right to quit.
But the wriggling and obfuscation would come to a spectacular end – and from an unlikely source.
In response to a question from the Mirror, with whom the Guardian had agreed to work, Durham police provided a statement confirming that the force had spoken to the family about Cummings’ visit.
The internet was swiftly awash with indignation and calls for the special adviser to resign.
Downing Street was still declining to speak to the Guardian on the record, while simultaneously providing other media with anonymous source quotes condemning the stories as “fake news”.
Two of the country’s most eminent behavioural scientists got the news as they ate dinner together last Friday night, and immediately recognised the gravity of what had been disclosed, not as a matter of political drama, but as a profound risk to public adherence to the lockdown rules.
“We looked at each other and said: ‘What is this?’,” said Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, whose wife, Susan Michie, is director of the same university’s Centre for Behaviour Change and a fellow attendee of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies’ behavioural sub-group.
“We had a very strong sense right away that something was up,” West said. “There were already concerns about how on earth we’re going to move to the next phase when messaging trust is ebbing away. And then this was like a bombshell.”
The next morning, Downing Street provided the kind of detailed statement that the Guardian had been seeking for weeks. But it brought as much confusion as clarity.
A spokesman confirmed the trip, saying that it was “essential … to ensure his young child could be properly cared for”.
But it went on: “At no stage was he [Cummings] or his family spoken to by the police about this matter.”
That line – later justified by an explanation that a conversation with Cummings’ father had been at his request and primarily about security matters rather than a breach of lockdown – is understood to have caused consternation at the Durham force, which found itself at the centre of a political storm, and was forced to reiterate that a conversation had indeed taken place. (Two days later, it would say that the call focused on security.)
But amid cries for clarity, little further information was on offer.
Cummings refused to let Downing Street issue a statement on his behalf, the Sunday Times reported, with one insider being quoted as saying: “He insisted on handling it all himself.”
If Downing Street had calculated that a stonewall strategy would make the story go away, they could hardly have been more wrong – thanks largely to a retired chemistry teacher.
Robin Lees got in touch with the Guardian via email.
“Just read your report in the Guardian and straight away reminded of an experience in Barnard Castle where I live on April 12th this year,” he wrote, before going on to describe his sighting of Cummings, and adding: “I went home and told my wife, but we thought he must be in London.”
Lees had written down a number plate immediately, he added, and Googled it as soon as he got home – a claim corroborated by his search history.
Hearing the transport secretary’s attempt to justify the visit by saying that Cummings had hunkered down and had not moved around, Lees was indignant. “Sorry if this has led you off at a tangent,” he wrote. “But Grant Shapps kept saying he stayed in one place!”
After new stories were published by the Observer and Sunday Mirror that evening, featuring the Barnard Castle account as well as a separate allegation – consistently denied – of a later visit to the area, the “stay put” defence slid out of the government’s story, to be replaced by a fierce critique of “campaigning newspapers”.
But if that was an attempt to define the subject as being one restricted to ideological left-wing interest, the response on Sunday and afterwards made it impossible to sustain. Led by the avowed Brexiter (and Cummings opponent) Steve Baker, Conservative MPs started to call for his resignation; with tens of thousands of angry messages sent by constituents, almost 50 more had done so by Friday.
The Daily Mail published a ferocious splash on Monday morning, with the headline: WHAT PLANET ARE THEY ON?
Meanwhile, TV and radio producers reported difficulty persuading all but a small cast of loyalists to defend Cummings’ position on air, with one saying: “Quite a lot of the usual suspects were actually furious about it. If you listened, the same people popped up again and again.”
Polls emerged showing a clear majority of the public felt the adviser had broken the rules, and ought to resign. It was time for the government to try a different approach: they promised us a rose garden.
Like all good divas, Cummings came out to greet his audience on Downing Street’s sunlit back lawn half an hour late. Despite the wait, his nearly unprecedented press conference drew a live TV audience of 5.5 million. In an extraordinary prepared statement, he laid out a complex story of difficult personal circumstances, ingenious and necessary solutions, and dismayingly compromised eyesight.
Even as he spoke, though, there was little sense that the firestorm would abate. Steven Swinford, the deputy political editor of the Times, tweeted that cabinet ministers were unsatisfied: “He’s saying he’s so much more important than us plebs,” one told him. Another concluded: “We’re losing trust and confidence – it’s draining away before our eyes.”
And there were oddities and inconsistencies even in the story that Cummings had set out in such extraordinary detail. Wakefield can drive, or at least could in 2000, when she wrote in a Spectator travel piece about a trip to Texas: “I drove for an hour every morning, slaloming past the road-rage wrecks of battered trucks, up the 135 from Dallas to Denton.”
And if he had only gone to the “outskirts” of Barnard Castle, as he claimed, why had he been sighted parked up on the far side of the river from the route he was most likely to have taken?
But such queries were unavailable to the journalists at the briefing, who, in line with normal Downing Street practice, had had to give up their phones before going in.
The rose garden appearance did not calm the public mood – and, perhaps most troubling of all for a government seeking to have its messaging taken wholly seriously, stoked widespread ridicule. Memes abounded, including “Should have gone to Barnard Castle” riffs on the famous Specsavers ad. Staff could “hardly believe it”, said Maria Sattar, the opthalmic director in the company’s Barnard Castle branch, who noted that the spoofs “gave us a chuckle”.
One Twitter account showed a page from Brewer’s slang dictionary which, if real, said “Barney Castle” was existing slang for a “pathetic excuse” deriving from a 16th century general’s refusal to leave his fortified position there to engage in battle. And the comedian Paddy McGuinness posted a reworked version of (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, concluding in a rousing chorus of “sha la la la la la bullshit”.
— Paddy McGuinness (@PaddyMcGuinness) May 26, 2020
Durham’s acting police and crime commissioner, Steve White, could sense the danger and urged the force to “establish the facts” around the claims.
He’d been listening to the “vox pops” from Barnard Castle on the Sunday night news, not far from his home.
“When people think that we’re fibbing, that we’re under the thumb of No 10, that’s when it starts to become an issue for me,” he said. “Seeing that dismay and anger at what people were hearing – we have to demonstrate that whatever else is going on, they can trust Durham police.
“That’s when I had to act.”
That move eventually led the force to the conclusion on Thursday that Cummings may have committed a “minor breach” of the lockdown rules.
By then, 100 or more Tory MPs had criticised Cummings or called for him to go; every ministerial briefing and interview had been dominated by the furore, and the government’s poll ratings had tumbled under the weight of middle-England indignation.
Yet Cummings was still in place.
The more significant question, of what this will mean for public adherence to lockdown and the new test-and-trace system, is yet to be answered.
West, the behavioural scientist, says that an earlier resignation or admission of culpability would have been far better, but that the situation could still, theoretically, be improved.
“It’s possible the damage will be mitigated by other people stepping in and saying: ‘Don’t do it for Cummings, do it for the community,’” he said. “But it’s like trying to climb an escalator when it’s going down. It’s not a question of whether lives will be lost now; it’s a question of how many. But there is still some point in someone acting. Even too little too late can be enough, and in time.”
For the sources who took the chance of coming forward, meanwhile, there has been at least some sense of vindication.
Lees received an unsigned postcard addressed to the “Retired chemistry teacher” of Barnard Castle. “I presume this is for you,” the postal worker told him. “Thank you for being so brave,” the message read.