Saving his Rasputin has cost Tsar Boris the public trust

May 28, 2020

Dominic Cummings has long been the talk of the political club in Westminster, fascinated by this Rasputin-like figure and devastatingly effective campaigner at the centre of the Downing Street machine. 

But this week the prime minister's chief aide became not just the talk of the SW1 bubble but of the whole country. An anonymous adviser turned into a national conversation, his actions during lockdown the subject of intense media scrutiny, political debate and public ridicule.

What has been clear since this saga first blew up on Friday night is the determination of Boris Johnson to save his man. The spectacle of Mr Cummings explaining himself at that hastily convened press conference in the Downing Street garden the proof that his prime minister would do the most extraordinary things to try to save Mr Cummings.

But if he hoped his aide would win over the public, he was very wrong. After that statement, two in three Conservative voters thought Mr Cummings should resign, according to a poll in Wednesday's Daily Mail. Four out of five Tory voters believed he did break lockdown rules and two in three of those polled said his conduct will make it less likely that people will follow lockdown rules.

It makes painful reading for a prime minister who has cast himself as the leader of the people's government. Now he looks out of step and out of touch with his public.

The prime minister's stature - and that of his cabinet - has been diminished by the rather unedifying spectacle of making excuses for behaviour that the vast majority of the public believe to be inexcusable.

Meanwhile, Mr Cummings has been cast in the public's mind as a member of the very tribe he purports to despise - the privileged elite that treats "the people" with contempt.

The political fall-out for Downing Street is plain to see. The prime minister has burnt through a lot of political capital to save Mr Cummings. MPs are fractious. Those I speak to tell me of the hundreds of emails piling up in their inboxes from angry constituents.

Forty-four have called on him to resign. Privately there are many more - and the silent mutiny runs through right from the backbenches to some who sit around the cabinet table.

But Mr Johnson and his inner team have stood their ground and the appetite from MPs to try to force Mr Cummings out seems to be losing momentum.

"The damage to the government is already done now whether he stays or goes," said one MP from the 2019 intake who took part in a zoom call with scores of colleagues and the deputy chief whip on Wednesday.

"Colleagues were critical but the main message was that if there are more revelations or if something was wrong in his statement on Monday, then he have to go."

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Much will depend on the Durham police investigation into his conduct. Should the police decided to reprimand him, he will most likely have to resign.

But the relationship between the PM, his adviser and his party has soured over this whatever Mr Cummings's ultimate fate. One minister told me Mr Cummings would be a "running sore" now in government. He has, in the words of the minister, "been exposed for what he is" and made weaker by this unfortunate episode. "He's got a massive target on him now," said another MP.

Then there is the policy fall-out. Cabinet office minister Penny Mordaunt on Wednesday told her constituents in an email that the row has "undermined key public health messages."

Simon Hoare, a senior Conservative MP who grilled the prime minister at the liaison committee, said he too was worried that Mr Cummings's behaviour could have serious implications for public health. "If the R rate climbs up and we have to resurrect lockdown, I am hearing that too many people for comfort will turn around and say 'no thank you, you can keep your lockdown. We tried it, we feel played, we're not going to do it."

And this is how, beyond the political fall-out, this episode has damaged the PM. A spike in the R rate could now be laid at his door for confusing the public messaging.

This government is already facing an economic crisis and possible public health crisis should we see a second peak in the virus. The prime minister needed to nurture public faith in his government rather than throw it away at such a crucial time in the fight against coronavirus.

This people's government has lost many of its followers over this sorry affair. Mr Johnson is going to have to fight as hard as he did to save Mr Cummings's job to win back public trust. He may have kept his adviser. But he has paid a very heavy price.

Next week from Monday to Thursday, Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting After the Pandemic: Our New World - a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.

We'll be joined by some of the biggest names from the worlds of culture, politics, economics, science and technology. And you can take part too. If you'd like to be in our virtual audience - from your own home - and put questions to the experts, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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