The latest episode of Downing Street – the West End’s moderately high-culture answer to EastEnders – was well worth waiting 24 hours for. It featured Dominic Cummings, still Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, strolling out of the shadows to take centre stage in the 10 Downing Street garden and entertain an assembly of the journalists he treats with such contempt. His demeanour, as he spent an hour painstakingly explaining to the slow-witted just how reasonable it was for him to have followed his paternal instincts and driven his wife and child 264 miles up to Durham when his very own slogan instructed everyone in the country to stay at home, suggested that he would much rather have been back in the blue-bell woods in the North East. It is just possible that the journalists might also have preferred to spend their sunny Bank Holiday afternoon somewhere else.
Cummings admitted that he had, indeed, driven the thirty miles to Barnard’s Castle over the Easter weekend, and explained that he had been worried that his eyesight had been affected by Covid-19 and so obviously needed to test it to see whether he could drive the 264 miles back to London safely. Smart idea that. You can tell why he is Boris’s chief advisor. Climb into the car with your wife and four-year old child on your wife’s birthday and drive for 30 miles down a highway to test your dodgy eyesight and, incidentally, visit a beauty spot. If you don’t crash into someone or something, your sight must be fine and you can enjoy the beauty once you get there; if you do crash into something but manage to survive, you can make sure dodgy eyesight gets added to the list of Covid-19 symptoms, even if you are the only person in the entire world who has been affected by the virus in that way.
Boris either believed this absurd story himself, or decided that the great British public and his newly restive back-benchers were stupid enough to believe it, and sent Cummings out to air it in the 10 Downing Street garden, which is, one gathers, usually reserved for entertaining heads of state and the leaders of government. As far as Boris is concerned Cummings behaved ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’, and he was presumably convinced that everyone else would feel the same way. The problem, of course, is that most of the people who needed to be convinced know that Boris’s familiarity with ‘integrity’ is pretty much on a par with Judas Iscariot’s familiarity with loyalty. Many of them also appear to accept the wisdom of the adage that ‘when the aide becomes the story, the aide goes’.
Johnson’s desperation to hold onto Cummings at any cost betrays an astonishing and rather pathetic degree of dependence and weakness for a Prime Minister who has recently won a landslide election. Perhaps allowing Cummings free rein of the 10 Downing Street garden was a tacit acknowledgement that Cummings is in effect, if not in name, the leader of this Conservative government. Although quite how Cummings’ ‘political disrupter’ label and the term ‘conservative’ can sit comfortably side by side is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, while Cummings insisted throughout his hour in the garden that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and certainly wasn’t about to apologise, is it just possible that he was having a private laugh at the expense of the rest of us? Did he know, when choosing Barnard’s Castle as the beauty spot for his sightseeing eye-test, that in Durham dialect a ‘Barney Castle’ is an exceedingly pathetic excuse?