Politico London Playbook
By JACK BLANCHARD
Phrase of the day: “That’s Barney Castle!” An old Durham dialect term from the middle ages, coined during the Northern Rebellion when cowardly Sir George Bowes refused to leave his fortified position in Barnard Castle to engage in battle. “Hence the expression ‘come, come, that’s Barney Castle‘ — meaning, ‘that’s a pathetic excuse.’” Read more.
DRIVING THE DAY
WE FOUND GOVE IN A HOPELESS PLACE: Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove goes out to bat for his under-fire protégé Dominic Cummings this morning as Downing Street tries to draw a line under a bruising bank holiday weekend. The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be touring (virtual) broadcast studios to insist Cummings has now given a full explanation of his various lockdown-busting trips, and that it’s time for the country to move on. Allies said last night they believe Cummings “did enough” at that extraordinary rose garden press conference to survive the scandal, but in truth it’s the ongoing anger of Tory MPs and Tory voters that will now decide his fate. So it’s all eyes on the opinion polls, the focus groups and — crucially — MPs’ mailboxes, as Downing Street nervously awaits the public verdict.
Mirror image: The media verdict is already in, and there’s not much around for Cummings to enjoy. He’ll be unsurprised to find himself on almost every front page this morning for the fourth successive day, and — ever the messaging genius — somehow unites the Labour-loving Daily Mirror and arch-Tory Daily Mail with near-identical “No apologies, no regrets” headlines. The apolitical Metro goes in even harder with a wince-inducing “Stay elite” front page, mocking up Cummings’ own coronavirus slogan to label him the very thing he’s accused his opponents of for years. Only the Telegraph, the Sun and the Express are in any way helpful, dutifully splashing on Boris Johnson’s announcement that “non-essential” shops can reopen in three weeks’ time.
But but but: That’s not to say the Telegraph is in any way impressed. Associate Editor Camilla Tominey is scathing in her verdict on the prime minister’s decision to stand by his man. “It is extraordinary that a politician with Mr Johnson’s unique understanding of what it means to be British could have been so reckless with the public’s trust,” she rages. “Far from being a Westminster ‘bubble’ story, news of Mr Cummings’ behavior during lockdown has gone well beyond SW1A and the Twittersphere. Disgust at the double standards on display is being expressed at the breakfast table, on the WhatsApp groups and over garden fences the length and breadth of the land … People aren’t seeing it as a debate between left and right, but right and wrong.”
Even more damningly … The Telegraph — Boris Johnson’s former employer — runs a big feature all about “the families who have stuck to lockdown rules despite it going against their instinct.” This is clearly a missile aimed directly at the prime minister, who on Sunday tried to blur the government’s crystal-clear messaging by suggesting it was fine for Cummings to act “on instinct” in the middle of a public health crisis. Reader after reader tells heart-rending stories about caring for children alone while sick; giving birth alone; facing hospital surgery alone; grieving alone. None of them acted “on instinct.” None of them broke lockdown rules.
You got Mail: It’s worth pausing too on the Daily Mail, a newspaper which gets triggered like no other at the sight of hypocrisy in high office, and which doesn’t take kindly to its readers being played for mugs. For the second successive day it gives over 12 furious pages to Cummings’ behavior, with one double-page spread blaming him for England’s crowded beaches and another asking incredulously: “Why drive 30 miles to a beauty spot with your child in the back to test your eyesight?” Columnist Jan Moir says her sympathy for Cummings “fizzled out like damp charcoal” the longer he spoke. Sketchwriter Henry Deedes dubs the Dom-BoJo double-act “a political tragedy in two parts.” And even Richard Littlejohn finds himself raging at the “shifty Northern bloke” whose “credibility began to fall apart” under fierce interrogation. These are all voices you’d expect to hear on Downing Street’s side in a serious crisis.
Losing the grassroots: Any lingering claims that this is purely a left/right or Remain/Leave issue are put firmly to bed by ConservativeHome’s Chief Executive Mark Wallace, a writer arguably more closely in touch with the Tory grassroots than any other. He uses his regular i column to set out why, as a Brexit-supporting Tory activist, he believes Cummings must resign immediately. “Voters’ fury is real, justified and widespread,” Wallace concludes, after explaining how much he likes and respects Dominic Cummings. “The political damage is serious and lasting … For the sake of his own cause, he should resign.” Ooft.
Still fighting: The Sun is left almost alone to fight Cummings’ corner, declaring his account of events “convincing, detailed and verifiable.” Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh says his friend of 20 years is a “profoundly decent man” who left his “critics floundering” yesterday. The Sun’s leader column even blames the “hysteria” of recent days on “Remainer cultists” and “defeated Labour tribalists” — though it’s unclear quite where the scores of furious Tory MPs, the Daily Mail, the boss of ConservativeHome and the, erm, Scottish edition of the Sun, fit into those categories. Interestingly, if you make it all the way back to the Sun readers’ letters page on page 39, you suddenly find the headline: “Boris must sack Dom.”
Away from the nationals: The big regional papers are equally unimpressed, with a Yorkshire Post editorial condemning Cummings’ arrogance as “unforgivable” and the Eastern Daily Press worrying that people are already bringing up his name to explain lockdown evasion. In Scotland, the closest thing to positive reading for Cummings is in a letter in the National from a reader who hopes Cummings will remain in position — but only because the scandal is helping make the case for Scottish independence.
SCREAMING BLUE MURDER
CABINET SPLITS: Cummings’ performance yesterday has divided the Cabinet, with some senior ministers outraged he’s still in place but others keen to move swiftly on. “My jaw continues to drop,” one tells the Times. “He’s saying he’s so much more important than us plebs. I think we’re in big trouble, we can’t campaign our way out of this. We’re losing trust and confidence — it’s draining away before our eyes.” Another is terrified evidence may emerge that Cummings’ actions have caused a decline in lockdown compliance. “If people really start to think that senior people in government aren’t following their own rules, that will be catastrophic,” the minister says. The paper says ministers pressed into voicing support on social media “privately admit to feeling demeaned.”
Not sure this helped: The Times’ Francis Elliott also notes ministers were not even told at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that Cummings would be making his rose garden address, which appears not to have gone down well. And instead of a broad discussion they merely sat and listened to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Attorney General Suella Braverman speak out in support of Cummings, the Times reports. “One seething minister texted a colleague a “vomit” emoji,” the paper says.
But but but: Another Cabinet minister tells the Times they think the press conference has won Cummings some “breathing space” and adds: “There’s a chance enough people will see it as the PM sees it — as a father taking care of his family and staying within the rules.” And another tells the FT that “deciding to take his family to a place of safety — and clearly maintaining social distancing with family nearby for their little one — is understandable and within the law.” Another member of the Cabinet tells the same paper: “I think Friday’s response bad and misjudged. He will still get grief, but I think the judgment made by the PM will be more understood by constituents that are normally sympathetic to the PM but had been very irritated.”
What about Tory MPs? Many of those being vocally critical on Sunday were keeping their heads down last night as they waited to see whether the tone of the the angry emails they’ve been receiving starts to change. “Time will tell,” one former minister tells Playbook. “Fortunately for the boss there’s no PMQs this week.” The Telegraph has a good write-up of the scale of the anger on the Tory benches, which is beyond anything we’ve seen before in this parliament. One former minister tells the paper: “This could be an ‘ERM‘ moment, where the public turn against us.” Another says it “feels more poll tax than ERM, actually.”
So what happens next? The vehement hope inside Downing Street is that with all the facts apparently now out in the open, attention will slowly start to move away from Cummings over the next few days. The prime minister has a whole week’s worth of big lockdown announcements up his sleeve to distract attention with, and assuming there are no further revelations to come about Cummings’ activities during lockdown then inevitably the story will start to lose its head of steam. No. 10 knows Boris Johnson will take a pounding from senior MPs at tomorrow’s Commons liaison committee hearing, but hopes that once that’s done and dusted, this whole thing starts to go away.
But but but: There are still multiple dangers ahead for Cummings in these crucial next few days. Questions still swirl around his account of events — top of the list being the dubious claim to have embarked on a 90-minute round trip to a beauty spot on his wife’s birthday (with his child in the car!) to “test his eyesight.” This police force tweeted last night that — guess what? — taking a drive to test your eyesight is a really stupid idea, and not even Dominic Cummings’ worst enemies accuse him of being stupid. It’s far from clear why Cummings and the PM believe this road trip was somehow within the rules, and police are investigating whether a breach was committed. Would a fixed penalty notice be a resigning matter?
And there’s more: It also remains unclear why Cummings and the PM believe having a young child at home represented an exceptional circumstance that permitted a 260-mile drive across the country while Cummings’ wife was symptomatic, given thousands and thousands of parents have been placed in that exact same position over recent weeks yet believed they’d been instructed to stay home. It’s also unclear why Cummings didn’t try to find childcare cover from a friend or family member in London; or indeed — given his sudden eyesight problems — why Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield didn’t drive them back from Durham.
And then there’s this: It’s small beans in the context of all the rest, but Playbook feels obliged to draw your attention to a truly surreal story on social media last night about precisely what Cummings may or may not have got up to after his 260-mile drive back to London. A data scientist on Twitter called Jens Wiechers was hunting out the old blogpost about coronaviruses which Cummings mentioned at last night’s press conference as proof he’d been worried about this type of pandemic for a while. Wiechers says he put the only Cummings blogpost he could find which mentions coronavirus through the Way Back Machine — an internet archive engine — and discovered that, erm, the relevant paragraphs on coronavirus had been *added* in mid-April.
Huh? Other archive checks apparently verify the Cummings blog has indeed been added to by person or persons unknown during the current crisis. The episode has triggered some amusement on social media, with people wondering idly if Cummings might have added these lines to his blog after the fact, purely to look smart later on. The BBC’s Faisal Islam has more.
Opposition positions: All the main opposition leaders are to hold a conference call this morning to discuss their approach to the Cummings crisis. Sky News’ Joe Pike got the scoop last night, and multiple sources confirm the call will go ahead at 11 a.m. “All MPs know that the Cummings story has cut through,” one of those involved tells Playbook. “The public is angry. Opposition leaders want to work together to show the government that anger is real, and simply cannot be ignored.” Quite what they’re planning to do against a prime minister with a majority of 80 is anyone’s guess … Presumably some sort of angry joint letter is on the cards.