In standing by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson has tied his immediate future even closer to a maverick and one of the most divisive figures in British politics.
The prime minister’s key aide is mired in a spiraling scandal where he’s accused of breaking the country’s lockdown rules, the same ones he helped craft. Everywhere in the country and on social media he is all Britons are talking about, drawing indignation and rage.
Credited with masterminding the shock successful 2016 Brexit vote and the election campaign that delivered Johnson a commanding parliamentary majority in December, Cummings has been central to Johnson’s vision.
In an extraordinary hour-long press conference in the garden of Johnson’s 10 Downing Street residence, Cummings said he didn’t regret his actions and hadn’t considered resigning. He traveled 250 miles (402 kilometres) from his London home when he was supposed to be self-isolating.
“I believe I made the right judgment though I understand that others may disagree with that,” Cummings said.
By backing Cummings, Johnson retains the key political brain and enforcer in his team at a moment of severe crisis for the country. The coronavirus death toll has surpassed 36,000 and Britain is heading for its severest recession in centuries.
But it is a gamble that could backfire horribly.
Keeping Cummings on has prompted a slew of negative newspaper headlines and seen Johnson’s public approval drop vertiginously in recent days, according to data from research and advisory firm Savanta.
Cummings, a 48-year-old Oxford graduate famed for taking a belligerent approach towards institutions like the media and civil service, is a driving force behind Johnson’s agenda to “level-up” poorer parts of the UK and deliver a quick exit from the European Union’s political infrastructure.
He has also shaped the nation’s coronavirus response. At a crucial meeting of the UK’s independent scientific advisers on March 18, Cummings pressed for lockdown measures to be introduced, according to people familiar with the matter at the time.
His overall role in shaping the UK’s virus strategy remains unclear. Johnson’s office vigorously denied claims in a British newspaper that he had originally wanted a policy of so-called herd immunity, even if it meant some older people would die.
Born in Durham, northern England, and the son of a teacher and an oil-industry worker, Cummings regularly argues that much of Britain’s political class misunderstands the common man, evidenced by its surprise at the vote for Brexit. He also likes telling journalists that they are out of touch with public opinion.
He eschews political norms — Cummings is rarely seen in public wearing a suit, and left Downing Street in sweat pants, an orange T-shirt and with his ID lanyard around his neck for all to see. In January, he tried to shake up Westminster by inviting “weirdos and misfits” to apply for jobs at the heart of government. But the maverick approach soon backfired when an aide quit days into the job — a research report from 2014 surfaced in which the person had written that white Americans were more intelligent than blacks.