Anyone else would have been sacked for it.
Twelve days ago Britain’s media and social media erupted in indignation and incredulity. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior aide, had been exposed for breaking the strict lockdown rules he helped to write, and which everyone else had endured for the previous two months.
“Stay at home and save lives,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the country. It was an incantation, an instruction not a request, backed up by the law and the police.
Britain shut down. Police patrols issued instant fines, sending second-home owners, day trippers and park sunbathers back home. Control the virus, save lives. People obeyed. Beloved elderly parents died alone in care homes after weeks of state-ordered loneliness, sick parents cared for their children in isolation. Single people confessed their hidden agony at being utterly deprived of human touch. Only a solemn sense of communal endurance for the greater good made these private griefs and struggles bearable. We were all in this together.
Until, it turned out, we weren’t. Mr. Cummings, newspapers revealed, had raced out of a London in lockdown to his parents’ farm, 260 miles away, with his young son and his wife, who was suffering from the symptoms of Covid-19.
In doing so he had broken both the regulations and their spirit. He had stayed in what was effectively a second home, taken the virus from a high-risk area to a low-risk one, been seen out in bluebell woods, gone out on a 60-mile day trip to a beauty spot on his wife’s birthday. This last journey, he claimed to general national ridicule, was just a drive to test whether his eyesight had been affected by his own attack of the virus.
In a country fed up with its privations, the story exploded. It looked like an obvious case for sacking or resignation. Two other prominent figures had already lost their posts for much more minor lockdown breaches. But nearly two weeks later, the issue is off the front pages and Mr. Cummings still has his job.
How did it happen? Mr. Johnson came out fighting for his man, saying he was only looking for potential child care, praising him for being so caring, gaslighting the entire country by claiming that somehow, retrospectively, there had been clauses in the regulations invisible to the rest of us that allowed us to do as we thought best for our families.
Voters do not believe him. Polls show the price he’s paying for defending Mr. Cummings. Two-thirds of the country think Mr. Johnson is wrong to back him, and four-fifths say Mr. Cummings broke the rules. Mr. Johnson’s approval rating has dropped 20 points.
The question that baffles the country is why has so much political capital been spent on saving the job of one man?
The truth is that for the prime minister, Mr. Cummings is vital. Boris Johnson is a puffball of a politician who craves applause and approval. He is famously disorganized and unreliable, a man known to neither read his briefs carefully nor think through his ideas. He wants to be prime minister without doing the work that comes with the job. Last week, he grumbled to the only parliamentary committee permitted to question him that preparing for their hearings takes a huge amount of time. We have a prime minister who thinks it tedious to be expected to know what his government is doing and why.
Mr. Cummings fills the gaps. Where Mr. Johnson doesn’t want to be the expert, Mr. Cummings prides himself on it. He is not an incidental useful assistant but the true driver of Mr. Johnson’s government. What has made him so powerful is that under him, with Mr. Johnson’s agreement, power has been concentrated in 10 Downing Street as never before — which really means concentrated in Mr. Cummings’s hands.
Cabinet power has been undermined and supplanted by a network of political advisers appointed by, controlled by and often personally loyal to Mr. Cummings. The key government priorities, like communications, coronavirus policy and improving the lives of Mr. Johnson’s new working-class voters? He is integral to all of them.
Most important, one senior Johnson ally described Mr. Cummings to me as the “guardian of Brexit” — the man the prime minister trusts above any politician to deliver it. Mr. Cummings is so embedded in every key policy that this ally says losing him would leave the prime minister “very, very vulnerable.” Britain’s future relationship with Europe has to be negotiated by the end of this year.
Another senior member of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party describes the relationship more brutally. If Mr. Cummings were forced out, he says, the network of people he’s built that currently powers this government would wilt. Mr. Johnson knows and fears that. Some would leave, some would become leakers, some would become slackers. For a prime minister whose government is already flailing, with huge pitfalls ahead, that is unconscionable. “It’s almost like Boris is a hostage,” he told me.
Mr. Johnson has reportedly privately raged at Mr. Cummings’s behavior and told him off to his face. A Tory source close to the prime minister tells me the prime minister warned his adviser “that he’d had his nine lives, and there were none left.”
Mr. Johnson has been described in the press as “loyal” to Mr. Cummings. It’s not loyalty, it’s ruthless political need. Mr. Johnson calculates that he cannot afford to lose him, and that the current public fury will die down. The four years to the next election is an age in politics; by then, he hopes, lockdown will be a dimly remembered irrelevant fact.
In this gamble, I believe Mr. Johnson is making a critical mistake. Voters will remember this episode because many will never forget how this government made them feel: foolish and deluded for willingly enduring anguish and separation while those at the top did as they pleased.
Jenni Russell (@jennirsl) is a columnist for The Times of London and a contributing Opinion writer.