Dominic Cummings speaks at a news conference at 10 Downing Street on May 25. (Jonathan Brady/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain is agog over the Dominic Cummings saga. According to reports in the Guardian and the Daily Mirror published Friday, the special adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in late March defied the lockdowns that Johnson’s government had imposed on the country and carried out a 260-mile family road trip while both he and his wife had symptoms of the novel coronavirus. The news sparked a severe backlash, with figures even within the ruling Conservative Party decrying Cummings’s behavior at a time when countless Britons were themselves unable to leave quarantine. Johnson has stood by his adviser.
“I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didn’t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government,” said Douglas Ross, who resigned from his cabinet post in Johnson’s government. “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right. ”
Opinion polls show Johnson’s approval ratings tanking, with Britons indignant over Cummings’s breach and subsequent nonchalance about having done so. “Many in Britain have not seen their friends and relatives since the lockdown was announced March 23 — missing births, graduations, weddings and funerals,” my colleagues reported. “Sunbathers have been fined by police. Residents in the countryside have warned ‘corona-idiots’ from the cities to stay away.”
On the continent, European newspapers were astounded by the “political gale,” as Spain’s El Pais declared, that may cause “irreparable damage” to the government in Westminster. France’s Libération was equally stunned by Cummings’s unapologetic performance at a news conference Monday in which he “confirmed that he had rewritten for himself the rules of the lockdown laid down by the government for which he works.”
Across the pond, though, it’s an altogether different story. For many reasons, what Cummings did would not be a scandal in the United States, or at least in the America that exists under President Trump. “The scandal is a little hard to understand for those of us in a country where governors are proudly taking photos of themselves in crowded restaurants with the support of the president,” noted Slate’s Joshua Keating. “The Cummings story is a reminder that America’s ‘lockdown’ has been far laxer and more haphazard than many other countries. ”
When the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared, both White House officials, pulled a similar guideline-flouting stunt in April, it barely registered in a U.S. news cycle that is conditioned by the daily blitzkrieg of Trump’s tweeted misinformation. Since his first day in office, Trump has presided over a litany of norm-smashing acts, a steady erosion that is reshaping the presidency. Thanks to the right-wing media constantly coming to his defense, Trump benefits from the lack of public consensus about his behavior.
The Cummings saga paints a different picture, with Britons across the political spectrum irked by a powerful official acting with impunity — even if the act was simply a long drive in his car. It also shows how different Britain’s right-wing nationalist government is compared with its counterpart in the United States, not least as Johnson reckons with the prospect of an internal party revolt.
That divergence underscores the unraveling of a script about both countries written in 2016: Trump, then just an insurgent presidential candidate, cloaked himself in the mantle of “Mr. Brexit.” His nationalist campaign, coupled with Britain’s populist, anti-E.U. referendum vote — a victory masterminded by Cummings — seemed to mark a dramatic inflection point in Western politics. The two countries at the heart of the liberal world order had taken a profound illiberal turn; far-right politicians elsewhere heralded the dawning of a new age.
The turgid process of actually achieving Brexit that followed, though, dimmed support for other anti-E.U. movements on the continent. And Trump is an astonishingly unpopular figure in Britain, where, no matter the country’s politics, few people appreciate his brand of bullying demagoguery.
Indeed, an element of what fuels the antipathy toward Cummings is the fear that he’s dragging Britain in America’s direction. “Cummings is no ordinary political aide — he is, in the words of one colleague who asked to remain anonymous, the driving ‘force of nature’ inside Johnson’s government,” explained the Atlantic’s Tom McTague. “He was the architect of the Brexit campaign, whose success in 2016 has done more to revolutionize Britain than any other vote since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory.”
Cummings is seen as a kind of Machiavelli in the shadows, steeped in contempt for the Westminster establishment. His career has drawn comparisons to all sorts of backroom schemers, from Rasputin to former Trump adviser and ultranationalist gadfly Stephen K. Bannon.
“Part of what’s disturbing was the vignette of a Britain Cummings himself did much to foment: grimly polarized, reflexively aggressive and running with an undercurrent of menace,” wrote the Guardian’s Marina Hyde. “His crowning triumph — the successful campaign to leave the EU — was a masterclass of stoking and exploiting divisions, unpleasantly emotive half-truths or untruths, and evidently considered itself above the law. ”
Trump’s critics could easily attribute those types of tactics to the White House. But Cummings, unlike Trump, may not politically survive the end of the month. Far from being the herald of a new world order, he may end up, as James Palmer, an editor at Foreign Policy, quipped on Twitter, “the poor man’s Steve Bannon in a country that still cares about the rules sometimes.”