At the heart of the words “Protect the NHS” – themselves at the centre of the Government’s three-part slogan when Dominic Cummings and his family drove north to Durham – was an unrebuttable political truth.
Namely, that had the health service collapsed as Italy’s did, with TV pictures of sick people “gasping for air, clutching at their chests and at tubes pumping oxygen into their oxygen-starved lungs”, Tory MPs would have risen in revolt.
Their e-mail boxes and Facebook pages would have teemed; Association activists would have been ringing and texting; friends and families would have been outraged; WhatsApp Groups would have boiled over.
And Boris Johnson, for all his 80 seat majority and thumping election win less than six months ago, would have been out. Now turn from fiction to fact.
When the Coronavirus began to bite back in March, the anguished e-mails did indeed begin streaming in, and Conservative MPs were suddenly all over Rishi Sunak.
The Chancellor was forced to follow up his Budget on March 11 with a second major financial package on March 19 and a third on April 3 – plus a further series of tweaks, adjustments and changes, including furlough extension.
The language in parts of the Treasury about the propensity of Tory MPs to panic as the constituency pressure mounts has to be heard to be believed.
This takes us back to the future of Cummings. Those e-mails and Facebook pages teemed yesterday; those activists rung and texted – and so on. The boiling water may not simmer down over the next few days.
The 1922 Committee’s executive hasn’t yet decided whether or not to meet virtually this week. That fact presents Boris Johnson with a choice.
He can gamble that it won’t. Or that if it does, the discussion it has about his adviser – for one is certain to take place if there is a meeting – is inconclusive, or pulls any punches it might be minded to deliver.
The latter is the most likely course of action if the executive meets: one source on the committee says that “I’ve never known us resolve anything formally”.
None the less, punches will certainly be thrown in Cummings’ direction in such an event. Three of the 16 MPs who have come out against him are on the executive: Steve Baker, Jason McCartney and William Wragg.
So if it meets, those punches aren’t pulled, and the committee formally resolves that Cummings should go, a trial of strength opens up between the Prime Minister and Conservative backbenchers.
Again, Johnson could gamble that, in these circumstances, the executive would back down. But if it didn’t, he would be in very serious trouble.
Ultimately, a Conservative leader operates with the consent of Tory MPs. The ’22 is a bit like the Canadian mounties: it always gets its man. Or woman: after all, it eventually did for Theresa May, only a year or so ago.
His choice, therefore, is either to continue to tough it out, in the hope that the ’22 doesn’t meet and act, or else sack Cummings (which he surely won’t do), or else…send for Mark Sedwill.
The Cabinet Secretary could authorise an inquiry into whether or not Cummings’ flight from self-isolation in London broke the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct.
Since Cummings had a legal case for what he did, and arguably a moral one, such a probe would be unlikely to recommend dismissal.
We also suspect, given the way the world works, that the top of the civil service is finely attuned to what this Prime Minister wants, for all the tensions between Sedwill and Johnson’s political operation.
At any rate, an inquiry would certainly stave off any push from the ’22. And Cummings would probably survive it. But that is not the end of the story.
Ultimately, what counts in the world of interaction between voters and MPs isn’t so much law, or even morality, as politics. And those of this row are problematic for Johnson in one sense and perhaps in another.
Certainly, and as we argued yesterday, it has dealt a blow to the authority of the lockdown. If so much depends on circumstances, common sense and context, as Ministers now proclaim, people will draw the obvious conclusion.
We understand that the Government’s plans for easing the shutdown, of which more is expected later this week, will rely more on the exercise of personal responsibility. Under the circumstances, that’s just as well.
And arguably, what’s at stake is not merely the authority of the lockdown, but the authority of the Government – and by extension Johnson himself: the man who has been loaned the trust of Red Wall voters and so many others.
At the emotional heart of the affair is the sense from people that they have missed family funerals; sweated it out in lockdown with sick children; not seen parents and friends for weeks – and so on.
If they really conclude that “it’s one law for them, and another us” – with enemy-of-the-establishment Cummings ironically transformed into an icon of the establishment – the Prime Minister may be irreparably damaged.
This sense will feed through into polls and event in such a way that Johnson will have no peace until his adviser departs, and maybe not even then.
We are a long way from knowing whether this possibility is real, and the heat of this row, deliberately fanned by the enemies of Brexit, of the Conservatives and of Cummings himself is not the best place to make a judgement.
There are plenty of reasons for the Prime Minister not to order an inquiry. The ’22 is unlikely to demand anything. In the absence of further revelations and facts, the story may burn itself in the May heat.
Ordering a probe now would look and perhaps be weak. And it might not reach the conclusion he wants. Still, there it is. Either he calls for one or toughs it out. But remember: a Tory leader is not ultimately master in his own house.
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Author: Paul Goodman
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