Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Sunday’s COVID-19 press briefing was a heinous moment for Boris Johnson. Since March, the country has been under lockdown in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. But it was revealed over the weekend by The Mirror and The Guardian that the architect of No 10’s health slogans, Dominic Cummings, had disobeyed the rules by making a journey to the North East of England to stay with his extended family.
Downing Street spent the weekend defending their aide’s position, insisting he had acted within the “spirit” of the law and had necessarily travelled to care for his autistic son. On Monday afternoon, Cummings stepped out of his shadow and gave a briefing to journalists to clarify doubters.
However, amid the launch of an investigation by Durham Constabulary into Mr Cummings’ actions and a potential inquiry, public health officials, newspapers and even Tory backbenchers are calling for the prime minister’s right-hand man to resign.
This scandal has engulfed Westminster, undermining confidence in government and offending millions of Brits who have observed the procedures and made grave sacrifices. In different times stories of a reckless downing street figure may have just remained in the so called ‘Westminster bubble’. But strikingly, this episode has highlighted the profound – and adverse – influence that spin-doctors like Cummings have on democracy; twisting the will of power and losing touch with what politics is really about.
From as early as the dawning of TV news, special advisers or SPADs as they colloquially are known, have been staple in British political operations, helping to execute policy and communicate with an intrusive but accountable media. The cunning Cummings is one such malcontent – brought into high office to realign the Tories as a party of modernity, as shown in his directive of the Vote Leave campaign alongside Johnson. Cummings was the brainpower behind Brexit and he coined the “Take Back Control” rallying cry.
But despite the promise in this slogan (and the long drawn out process of leaving the EU that resulted from it) there still seems to be a worrying gap that exists between the governors and the governed, as an Institute for Fiscal Studies report contends.
Spin-doctors blur all lines of accountability. They are responsible for widening this gap because of the soft power they exert without checks or balances.
Cumming’s decision to leave London – and reside on private land – rebuts the populist motive he so sets out to accomplish: to prioritise the interests of the voiceless, ahead of the consenting metropolitan elite.
There is something else. Resilience and the power to deliver a narrative are perceived to be desired qualities for lawmakers. But that requires the ability to listen and, in some cases, compromise to have resonance.
Are spin doctors employed for their listening skills, or compromising? No. And that is the issue. Boris is supposed to be running the “people’s government”, but if he looked at a recent YouGov poll on whether Cummings should be outed for all the “mistakes” made, he would think otherwise.
Say what you want about Cummings and whether he should stay or go. The real issue I have is with people like Cummings. In this situation, the public are not being led by Boris Johnson. They are being represented, instead, by Cummings who is responsible for speaking to them as the ‘unnamed’ clientele.
He is now the face of the current administration, thanks to his briefing in the Rose Garden (reserved, normally, for prime ministers) and celebrity-like persona. That is a dangerous realisation because voters do not issue mandates to spinmeisters; they give them to elected representatives. If true sovereignty is vested with consultants, where does accountability lie?
Cummings may indeed be out of a job because, even if he was innocent, his actions have further undermined the executive’s proactive health message to “save lives”.
Spin-doctors will not die out. Even if the presence of SPADs is irreparably different to previous generations, they will still be in demand. It is invariably sad because – in an ideal world – they should not have a place in a society built on the principles of law and order. Hiring them will tumble the image of politics into indelible apathy and untrustworthiness that needs to be rebuilt, once again.