The position of Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister
Thank you for your e mail about the movements of Dominic Cummings during lockdown, explaining how you feel about them and giving your views on what he and / or the Prime Minister should have done / do now.
Firstly forgive me for answering impersonally with the same reply to all of you, even though few of your mails were identical and not all of you have made the same points.
There is enough similarity however for me to cover the main points: and if you want an answer to other questions then do come back to me.
Secondly some of you have been impatient for an immediate reply and have sent chasers. It is true I don’t generally like leaping to instant judgements when individuals (of any and no political party) are criticised, especially for personal decisions. It’s much easier to criticise than be sure of the circumstances and how any of us would have acted in that situation.
Sometimes too there are other agendas involved - I don’t, for example, intend to cover issues raised by a few about Mr Cummings’ role in Vote Leave, and I recognise some constituents also bruised from the results of the Referendum and/or General Election. Let’s put those differences aside to focus on this issue alone.
Thirdly I don’t know Dominic Cummings and although have definitely had different views to his on several issues that too is completely irrelevant. I have no axe in defending or attacking him.
So my approach is we’re all human and make mistakes (I certainly do): I don’t like aggressive and threatening behaviour outside peoples’ homes and I’m sorry that the BBC has had to apologise for recognising that a Newsnight programme led by Emily Maitlis on this issue was not as objective as it should have been.
Fourthly I’ve taken time to try to be clear on the detail, to hear what the PM’s advisor had to say himself and how the PM responded to questions from the Parliamentary Liaison Committee yesterday.
That all said there are three specific issues which do concern me:
1. The detail
I think most of us can understand and sympathise with the Cummings family’s focus on trying to get family help in a potentially life threatening situation. Durham is a long way from London, but the guidance allows for individual responses to exceptional situations and can never cover every situation: equally I don’t know how the police would have responded if his car had been stopped.
But no explanation of the Barnard Castle trip, at a time when we were in the tightest lockdown and only allowed out to travel for exercise by foot or bike, is convincing. It was not (at the least) within the spirit of the guidelines, and this is what has irritated most of you - while the country was expected to stick strictly to the Stay At Home message, it appears Mr Cummings could be an exception.
2. The reaction
Mistakes are often made worse by what happens next. In this case Dominic Cummings could have recognised the strength of feeling, which I get from all of your mails, on this and made an immediate and forthright apology. That hasn’t happened.
In any crisis, nations need to believe in their leadership: and in a democracy emergency guidelines can only be enforced by consensus, which comes from trust in the message.
That trust can be damaged if there’s a perception that some around the leaders are not expected to show the same commitment to the rules as the rest of us.
Mr Cummings’s actions at that time (before and around Easter) fail that simple yardstick, even if there is no legal case. Many of you have spoken passionately and movingly about the problems you’ve faced, and even sacrifices you’ve had to make at times of very difficult family moments. I know of many examples from constituents who haven’t written to me on this too - and there will be masses more I don’t know of. All of us in each of our families have made at least mini sacrifices. That is what has caused you all frustration, anger and resentment. It has to be seen that we are all in this together both in risk and in behaviour.
Those working in No 10 have to set an example, and in this case I don’t think Mr Cummings set a good one, and by not apologising immediately for that he has damaged trust.
So let me apologise to all of you. I believe the PM has done his best to lead the country through this crisis, and although he has acknowledged not every policy response has been perfect, and that lessons should be learnt later, he knows better than almost all of us the damage COVID19 can do, and will go on carefully balancing decisions about protecting lives with protecting livelihoods. I think the government he leads has made extraordinary commitments, using all its resources - of course our brave NHS & others in the frontline from the beginning - but also eg the Armed Forces on PPE logistics and testing - to try and make sure the country gets what is needed to come through this. But on this particular issue I agree Mr Cummings got it wrong and that should be recognised. I am sorry it hasn’t been, properly.
Mr Cummings is an appointed official, and serves at the PM’s pleasure. If the PM believes that the Trust that has been damaged can be rebuilt, that difficult messages and guidelines can and will still be followed, then that is his call. I will do my best to lead by example here, and will work with all of you for what is right and best for our city. I know that almost everyone here will go on taking seriously guidelines led by medical advice, and our police will go on explaining, encouraging and (when necessary) enforcing.
But if Dominic Cummings were to conclude that in a crisis the country needs a strong example from all those working in No10, and that he has let the PM and the country down - in difficult personal circumstances I agree - then there is a clear course of action open to him.