In the wake of the Dominic Cummings scandal, this week has definitely been an arduous one for Downing Street. With stories of his special advisor’s trip to Durham taking centre stage in national headlines, the prime minister has spent the week facing criticism from all angles, fronting difficult questions at committee hearings and press conferences.
As pressure mounts from the public, political opponents, and his own backbenchers, what does the Cummings saga mean for Boris Johnson? Moreover, while all this plays out, what is actually happening with UK’s response to coronavirus? This week we look at four key things you need to know from another momentous week in Westminster.
It’s fair to say that not many things can match fatality figures or national testing capabilities in media coverage during a global pandemic. However, this week Dominic Cummings has done just that, as reports of his 250-mile trip from London to Durham and his excursion to Barnard Castle during lockdown have dominated political discourse. Reports that the prime minister’s chief advisor broke his own lockdown rules have met widespread calls for the aide to be sacked. However, despite the public backlash, and a 20-point plummet in his personal approval rating, it seems Boris Johnson intends to stand-by Cummings until the bitter end. In an attempt to subdue the story, cabinet ministers were sent on a twitter spree to defend the advisor this week, whilst Dominic Cummings hosted a press conference from the rose garden of Downing Street.
Lockdown rules aside, this all starts to paint a pretty damning picture for Boris Johnson, as it has become apparent that he is willing to put his neck on the line in order to keep Cummings in-post. For many people, this is exemplifies longstanding concerns about the power special advisors wield behind the doors of Number 10. This position was taken by opposition leader Keir Starmer, who succinctly suggested, ‘if Johnson cannot function without Cummings, he is unfit to be prime minister’. Furthermore, this issue has not gone unnoticed by Conservative backbenchers, with over 40 Tory MPs calling for Cummings to resign. In addition, a number of cabinet ministers are rumoured to have raised private concerns with the PM about Cummings remaining in post.
The Cummings scandal doesn’t merely highlight the PM’s reliance on his top aide; there is another weakness in Johnson’s political armour - elitism. The 2019 general election was won with votes from across traditional party lines, as Labour heartlands voted Conservative for the first time in a generation. As a result, the Cummings scandal has left the PM in a very compromising position, as he defends the flouting of government rules to drive to a country home whilst simultaneously asking the public to persist with the struggles of lockdown. The public perception of ‘one rule for them and one rule for us’ is a big problem for Johnson, who had envisioned using the first six months of his new government to embed his ‘people’s government’ narrative. As such, Dominic Cummings has moved from one of Boris’s most controversial assets to a long-term liability, acting as a reminder of the brazen elite from which the prime minister hoped to distance his public image.
That said, although the scandal has definitely undermined public confidence in Johnson for the time being, it’s not yet clear whether this will have a long-term impact on his brand. Beginning his parliamentary term with a majority of over 80, and with five years until the next election, there is a chance that the current nightmare will not become embedded enough to destabilise the Johnson premiership. He will however need to ensure that he restores public opinion of himself as a strong leader if he is to navigate the next few turbulent years of economic recession, strong political opposition, and of course Brexit.
Time for test and trace?
A key move away from the Cummings drama will of course involve returning our focus to the coronavirus pandemic itself. This was evident with the timely launch of the UK’s test and trace system on Thursday. The long–awaited strategy is seen as a key part of the UK easing lockdown measures, and controlling the spread of coronavirus as the country moves through different phases of the pandemic.
However, it seems NHS England has hit an early bump in the road, as Dido Harding, chair of the government's test and trace programme, told MPs this week that the programme will not be fully operational at a local level until end of June. In addition to this, the launch was also stifled by technical glitches, after claims that the tracing programme’s IT systems had experienced difficulties on day one.
Whilst Downing Street has denied that the launch was moved to distract from the Cummings scandal, many have suggested otherwise. Directors of public health, who only found out on Wednesday afternoon that the programme was to be launched four days earlier than expected, have since warned that necessary links between the central test and trace operation and local councils are still not fully established.
Boris’s gift to the nation
Against the backdrop of Dom’s PR nightmare and the test and trace announcement, last night Boris Johnson brought a little optimism to the UK as he announced further lockdown restrictions will be lifted on 1 June. As of Monday, groups of up to six people from different households will be able to meet outdoors, including in a private garden. Furthermore, it has also been confirmed that the Premier League will restart on 17 June behind closed doors, with four games due to be broadcast live on the BBC.
The announcement of measures being relaxed is definitely a positive sign, with the prime minister stating that if we continue to hit key milestones further steps can be taken to re-open the economy. However, with the chancellor today due to announce how the furlough scheme will be rolled back over the coming months, businesses will need to wait and see whether these are all steps in the right direction. Rishi Sunak’s announcement will look to clarify what proportion of wages businesses will need to support, with rumours suggesting that firms may need to pay around 20-25% of furlough wages. However, with 8.4 million workers enrolled on the scheme currently, there is still a long way to go before the economy can start to re-open to pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, the government will need to assess whether it can afford this type of economic stimulus package and a hard brexit.
Mogg-marched back to the Commons
Finally, as MPs relax and enjoy Whitsun recess, they don’t have long to wait to return to work as parliament has been recalled to sit from 11.30am on Tuesday. The government has requested a slightly earlier recall on 2 June, in order to allow MPs to decide on a new voting system to allow them to vote in person on their return to Westminster. This follows speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s statement that using the voting lobbies as normal was insufficient for social distancing, and that new procedures would need to be implemented if MPs are to move away from the virtual model.
However, the decision for the Commons to return from online voting has not been a popular one for many MPs. Although confirmed by a parliamentary vote, the push for an end to virtual proceedings has been very much led by the government, in an attempt to prevent delays to the passing of legislation and to provide some much needed cheerleaders for Boris at PMQs.
As such, MPs from all sides of the political spectrum have stated they are unhappy with the decision. Tory MP Robert Halfon for example has spoken out against it, arguing MPs forced to shield or self-isolate will become ‘the metaphorical equivalent of parliamentary eunuchs.’ Moreover, almost 50 MPs have also written to the procedure committee arguing a return to a full parliament would be a major coronavirus risk. Labour MP Geraint Davies, who penned the letter, said voting in the lobbies was a ‘gross irresponsibility’ and that MPs will become ‘super-spreaders’ by working closely in Westminster, before returning to their constituencies at the weekend.
As we look ahead to next week, the start of June means another round of EU negotiations and the critical EU leaders’ summit are on the horizon. With little progress to date, all eyes will be on the government and EU to deliver some positive news amidst all the coronavirus chaos.
However, if there is not any progress before the summit at the end of the month, there is a good chance both sides will walk away from the negotiating table in order to use the second half of the year for no-deal preparations. The coming weeks will therefore be crucial for the PM if he is to regain some favour with the public. Thank goodness he still has his right-hand man.