Comment on Dominic Cummings - Crispin Blunt - 28th May 2020
I have now received over 500 email enquiries regarding the Prime Minister’s adviser, Mr. Dominic Cummings in addition to a large number of calls and posts on my social media accounts. I am reading all the correspondence, but it is not possible for me to reply in a timely way individually to each communication as I would normally do. Instead, I have tried below to respond to the points made and to provide you with a full understanding of my view on this issue as your Member of Parliament, having reflected on the points of view and questions put to me in all the correspondence.
The pandemic and the strategy to manage its threat means we are all living through a new experience. This explosion of correspondence, unprecedented in my 23 years in Parliament, over one long weekend on the actions of a non-elected adviser, which are open to interpretation both sympathetic and condemnatory, itself indicates we are in times strange to all of us. My reaction has been to reflect on the factors that have led to this situation and your decision to take the trouble to communicate your views to me.
There are real pressures created by the measures required to control this virus, as well as the tragic outcomes for many of those directly infected and their families. The harm this virus is doing is outside this generation of humanity’s experience. All of us have had to endure at least massive change and inconvenience, most of us disruption to family and professional life, and the frustrations from the restrictions become more onerous to bear each succeeding day. The correspondence has reinforced this for me in reading about a mother restricting herself to only see her 9-month-old baby twice in this period, families’ extreme anxiety about isolated elderly relatives managing their frailties and the probable terminal risk this virus poses to them. Then there is the anxiety about the future that, as this virus retreats, the world will then need to face and work through the societal and economic consequences it leaves behind.
In the UK, these Covid-19 factors are being laid upon the character of our recent politics. A culture of growing polarisation and intolerance for the other’s point of view and, certainly it appears to me, an alarming unwillingness to properly understand why others might have a different perspective, but instead too often to put the most malicious interpretation on others’ motives.
Ironically this great national collective effort to combat this virus’ threat to us all was emerging as an opportunity to bring us together as we all made our contribution in different ways and this would help bear down on this wider polarisation in our politics. The tragedy of the Cummings affair is that like a virus itself, it demonstrates that this polarisation, intolerance, and lack of generosity of spirit remains deep in the British body of politics.
That this polarisation has infected the consideration of the merits of the actions of an ill Cummings family could hardly be clearer. In the critical public commentary there has been scant consideration by most, if not all, of the merits of the human judgments of parents trying to serve their family best, consistent with protecting the rest of us, which is the object of the policy on which he helped advise at the most senior level. We have even had a dozen or so bishops threatening to withdraw collaboration with the Government on this pandemic based on this issue alone without having heard the detailed context of Dominic Cummings decisions for his family. In this context one can understand why we saw the unprecedented business of an official giving a full explanation of his personal conduct and submitting to questions on it in the garden of No 10.
My views on the merits changed listening to Mr Cummings during Monday’s press conference. Once I understood that the opportunity to self-isolate as a family unit, within close distance of immediate relatives on an isolated farm, who were perfectly placed to pick up their child-caring responsibilities if the virus overtook them, the uninterrupted car journey, even if long, makes complete sense. Of course, this would be a situation available to strikingly few people, but his actions were wholly consistent with the interests of his family and critically the rest of us as well. The family’s 260 miles journey, in a car, was less dangerous to the public than travelling any distance on public transport. He was fortunate enough to have the ideal situation of an empty house, with both sister and parent in adjacent houses ready to provide for his family should they be needed. It was also reasonable for him to collect the other two members of his household from hospital, again in a car without coming into contact with the public. I also accept the reasons for a test drive before driving back the 260 miles, 15 days after his first symptoms which is in line with self-isolation guidance. We can send up the eyesight test issue in isolation but checking whether one would have the strength and endurance to make that long return car journey whilst in recovery from Covid-19, struck me as appropriate and responsible.
The context of his decisions and consideration of their merits also needed to exclude the rumour and innuendo surrounding them. For example, the speculation about a further outing on 19th April based on allegations by two unidentified witnesses, has been strongly denied by Mr Cummings and a formal statement from No 10 confirming this. Reports of the Durham police’s conversation with Mr Cummings’ father were also proven inaccurate when the Constabulary withdrew the suggestion that they gave him ‘specific advice’ about the correct actions to be taken during the coronavirus outbreak to remain in accordance with lockdown guidelines, implying the Police believed they had been broken.
These are the reasons I believe it would be wrong to fire Mr Cummings on the merits of this episode. I understand and personally applaud the Prime Minister’s decision to stand by his man at this time. I was struck by hearing the recent words of the new Labour leader about his duty of care to officials of the Labour Party, to whom he guaranteed due process under his leadership. These are standards that place truth over image and perception. Our default position should be to support them. It is a brave thing to do in my profession as the whole truth and nothing but the truth can very rarely carry the day in a 24 hour news cycle. The difficult experience politicians in a democracy must manage is that a conclusion based on a balance of arguments is then betrayed by truths that support a competing interpretation. It then depends on how you balance up the arguments and factors to bring you to your own conclusion. I much regret in today’s politics it is often seen as some kind of gaffe to accept your opponent’s conclusion might have any merit at all. I would like this intolerance to reduce and for Covid-19 to help widen understanding and for us to look for the best in each other, not least whilst so many people are demonstrating their good values in the actions to defeat this virus.
On the Cummings affair it’s also brave to stand by an unpopular figure as you start with people’s perceptions already tilted against you. I accept perceptions also play a role. It is claimed by a few of my colleagues and in effect by some of my correspondents, that in this emergency, perception trumps truth, because it is perception that will dictate public behaviour and thus how this looks, even if grossly distorted by the lens of a media seeking to sustain a different narrative should be the decisive factor. Depressingly that is often the conventional political response. Dispose of the difficulty even if unfair. Indeed, that is the normal fate of serving politicians but Mr Cummings is not a politician and the Prime Minister has chosen to take the higher and more difficult path of discharging his duty to truth and due process to his Chief Advisor. I believe that decision deserves my support, even though that will not satisfy many of my correspondents.
I hope this long response has at least managed to explain why I have come to this conclusion and even if you strongly disagree, that you might respect the conclusion just as I understand why constituents have felt so motivated by the experience of this one small family trying to manage its situation as best as they can within the context of the Covid-19 emergency.
28th May 2020