Defending Dominic Cummings is the icing on the cake of the government's spectacular display of incompetence

Do we want to be led in this way? It does not inspire much confidence if the prime minister cannot function without his chief aide

'As I understand it': Grant Shapps flounders in defence of Dominic Cummings

Do we really live in a country where one adviser in Downing Street, Dominic Cummings, is so crucial, so central, so indispensable to the government that they are placed above the law?

It seems so. The impression given is that the prime minister is so dependent on this man as a sort of intellectual valet that he simply cannot live without him. He is Boris’s “brain”, by the looks of things, and I’m not sure that’s a reassuring thought, given where we are now.

The government has put in a spectacular display of incompetence in recent months, and, ironically, you have to wonder whether Cummings’ svengali-like, “disruptive” influence is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As far as can be judged, his main project is to take a mallet to the Cabinet Office and the civil service more widely, and then remodel it like a kid with a lump of play dough.

It might help the country get through coronavirus and Brexit, or it might not, but reorganising the machinery of government has never revolutionised any country’s economic prospects. What does it say about Boris Johnson’s judgement that he has to sacrifice everything to cling on to this man Cummings like a security blanket?

Prime ministers have had to jettison troublesome advisers before, and political life went on. Margaret Thatcher lost her economic adviser, Alan Walters, who was publicly at odds with her chancellor; Theresa May had to say goodbye to her own “terrible twins”, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill; David Cameron tried to protect but had to allow his press secretary Andy Coulson to quit; Gordon Brown dispensed with the rumbustious talents of Damian McBride. Most strikingly, Tony Blair was big and confident enough to carry on without Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, who were possibly more important to his mission than Cummings is to Johnson’s.

Indeed it was Campbell who said that when an aide “becomes the story” it is time to go. Cummings has become the story twice in the course of one weekend, and his stupidity and arrogance is undermining the effort to fight the coronavirus. That is intolerable.

The work of the government and what’s left of its standing is being very badly damaged. They are an object of ridicule and of anger. The Cummings scandal has “cut through” to the public. They’ve played by the Covid-19 rules, so why not this dude?

The extent to which the government’s (civil service) press officers and cabinet ministers have been press-ganged into issuing embarrassingly inaccurate defences of Cummings betray a real desperation to hang on to our bluebell-loving friend in the beanie hat. Now they look foolish in their denials.

For what the Sunday Mirror and The Observer engineered was a booby-trapped scoop. No sooner had a bomb squad of spin doctors arrived to defuse the first device, with some success, than the second explosive story dropped, with devastating consequences to already damaged political reputations.

Dominic Cummings defends travelling during lockdown as 'reasonable and legal'

Waving a beach ball that looked like a globe in one hand and a bicycle helmet in the other outside his (actual) London home, Cummings resembled a scowling caricature of the Infant of Prague – the spoilt baby Jesus of Downing Street who must be preserved and protected at all costs. Johnson must worship Dom as a totem with the power to perform political miracles such as Brexit and the Tories’ first thumping election win in three decades.

Things are so bad now that they’ve stopped trying to defend the indefensible and have just declared that they aren’t going to even attempt to try. The public can make what they will of the offensive hypocrisy of Cummings’ commutes to Durham, but Johnson doesn’t care and Cummings has to stay.

A few months after that glorious general election win over Jeremy Corbyn – it seems a lost political world – and Johnson is in the bunker, being shelled by the media, public opinion, the opposition, parts of the cabinet, Tory MPs and even the Durham Constabulary. Time spent on Cummings is time wasted on testing. The defence of Cummings undermines the public health effort if it is now “up to the individual” to interpret the rules. It is not sustainable.

I suppose the better question is whether we want to be governed in this way. It does not, as I say, inspire much confidence if the prime minister cannot function without Dominic Cummings. The reality is that Cummings is now so toxic that he is endangering Johnson’s own political survival. I thought Johnson would be gone by Christmas; maybe it’ll be sooner.

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