In 1843, the historian Thomas Babington Macauley wrote “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Given that we are currently mid-fit, it would take an apparently foolish person to write that they believe the Prime Minister to have acted with integrity. But please bear with me.
The key fact in the affair is that Dominic Cummings took a course of action which he believed was legal and justified under the circumstances and was in line with the government guidance. The Prime Minister agreed.
Now, as Cummings himself said, it is possible for reasonable people to disagree on this matter. The guidance states that in “exceptional circumstances” people may take “reasonable” action. It can be disputed what exactly is meant by the words “exceptional” and “reasonable”, but this is the case with much of British law. Consider “reasonable force” in matters of self-defence, or “reasonable chastisement” of a child. It is for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, ultimately, a jury to decide how to interpret the events. Anything else is the road to mob justice.
However, Johnson has applied his own reasoning and reached his own conclusion. Perhaps this was informed by his personal knowledge of the strains his Chief-of-Staff was under, including that his London house was a target for journalists and activists. Perhaps he merely offered his friend the benefit of the doubt. But he clearly believed that other people would reach a similar conclusion were they in possession of the full facts, so he asked Cummings to relate those facts in the Downing Street rose garden.
The crucial point is this; having reached such a conclusion, it is wholly admirable of the Prime Minister to stand by his employee despite the cries from the media and the public.
It would have been simple to dismiss him summarily when the news broke, and people would (apparently) have been satisfied. That is, they would be satisfied that Johnson fired a member of his staff despite believing him to have done no wrong for reasons of political expediency. And that would have shown admirable leadership?
Some commentators have said that a swift apology on Friday would have been an end to the matter. So, a man who believes he took an acceptable course of action is forced to make an insincere apology by a man who also believes he did no wrong and we should be happy with that?
Others have said that he could have been fired quickly and then quietly brought back a few months later. I assume that actually running the country during a pandemic takes a back seat to these political manoeuvres? Imagine the disruption caused by ripping the lynchpin of the Johnson operation out of his position, leaving a power vacuum, and just for the sake of the optics. It would be the perfect example of spin over substance, something we’re meant to detest.
Content to pile additional pressure on the PM, around 40 Conservative MPs have now called for Cummings to go primarily because their mailbags are filling up with angry correspondence. Well, the fact that a constituent missed a relative’s funeral is neither here nor there. Going to a funeral is not the crime of which Cummings is accused. They followed the guidelines related to their circumstances, as Cummings did in his.
Some people doubtless followed what they believed the guidance said, as opposed to what it actually said. That many people thought that they could take no discretionary measures shows that the Government’s communications throughout the pandemic have often been badly flawed. However, it is hardly surprising that someone involved in writing the guidelines and who worked closely with the Government’s medical and scientific advisors was more aware of what was permitted than the average citizen. Being informed is not a crime and being ignorant does not grant you the moral high-ground.
Some MPs called for Cummings to go immediately on a point of principle, although prior to his explanation of events. This was arguably politically savvy, but doesn’t scream of natural justice. Then there were those who were minded to give him the benefit of the doubt until the angry letters arrived, at which point they changed their minds. That seems little short of gutless. Throughout the Brexit process, MPs often declared that they were not mere delegates, that they owed their constituents their judgement. It seems that applies more to some than to others.
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Neither does it matter that Johnson has “lost the Daily Mail”, an assertion generally made breathlessly by people who have spent years decrying governments for caring too much what the Daily Mail said. Nor are the Guardian, the Mirror, the BBC or Sky News suddenly going to acclaim the government if Cummings’ services are disposed of. We have a free press; journalists are free to offer their opinions and to stamp their feet but the government is not obliged to do as they ask. (It does also feel like parts of the media are relishing the ability to attack a man who disdains them, hardly gold-standard journalism.)
Ultimately, it is a logical fallacy to suppose that a decision is right if it meets with popular acclaim and wrong otherwise. People with that view are guilty of the populism of which they are usually swift to accuse the Prime Minister.
In standing by his employee on a point of principle, I would argue that Boris has demonstrated a degree of moral courage that many of his critics lack and that his steadfast loyalty to his staff speaks well of his character.
But reasonable people may, of course, disagree.