How would a PR navigate the Dominic Cummings issue?
An interesting question that I’ve been posing myself over the past few days, how would I manage the Dominic Cummings issue if I advised government? Before I start down that route – some housekeeping, as it were.
Firstly I’d like to congratulate the UK media on their coverage and investigations into this issue. I think the press has broadly come down on the right side here. There will be some who disagree over the issue of ‘trial by media’ however others no doubt feel that invasive questioning of Mr Cummings – an individual who appears to have huge power in government, but limited culpability – is entirely appropriate.
Secondly I feel duty bound to share my political leanings. Although I will try to be neutral as ever, it’s true that I didn’t vote Conservative at the last election and my views, while pro-business, tend to lean slightly to the left of the centre.
So, what would I do about the ‘Dominic situation’?
- The first step I would take as an advisor to government on the current issue would be to try to look at both the short and long-term risks arising out of the issue. Strategically, it is important to try to look beyond what is happening right now and to seek to understand the outcomes of both action and inaction. Action for Boris looks like sacking Mr Cummings, inaction like trying to front it out.
The lightening rod issue
- We all know the details and the rebuttals put forward now by both Mr Cummings and the Prime Minister, so I won’t repeat them here.
- The standout or lightening rod issue here is the feeling by many people – including some in government and others in leadership roles – that Mr Cummings either interpreted the rules generously in his and his families’ favour or simply ignored them because he could; when others chose not to do the same, or were prevented from doing so by the government advised by Mr Cummings at the highest level. This feels, on a very basic level, unfair. And this is making people angry.
- Mr Cummings’ reasoning for his actions was that he was taking steps to protect his family.
- Protecting one’s family is, of course, hugely important. However – and I believe this is what sticks in the craw – the vast majority of the public has made sacrifices in which they actively chose not to put themselves and families ahead of what the government, of which Mr Cummings is an unelected part of, told them to do or not do.
- Often the sacrifices made were forced upon those making them – the lonely deaths, the funerals missed, the suicides that perhaps feel avoidable. Poorly family members alone without the comfort of loved ones, the elderly forced to self-isolate for almost three months now, entire families locked into apartments with no outside space, ability to exercise and perhaps even without access to sunlight.
- People have suffered greatly and made huge sacrifices, and to see the rules not being followed by the spirit in which they were written, by one of their architects, creates a lack of trust but also of credible authority. Many families with suspected Covid have simply ‘cracked on’. Visiting family to support with childcare wasn’t sold as an option.
Looking at the macro issues
In normal circumstances, I feel certain that Mr Cummings would have either resigned or been sacked. However, these are not normal times and Boris’ government does not feel normal. The Conservatives have a large majority in parliament, giving them a lot of freedom to deliver their agenda.
We also have Trump in power over in America. A man who we have seen use ‘fake news’ as his answer to any challenge over the truth of his statements. Interestingly the ‘fake news’ claim has been used a lot over the past few days by our own government and indeed, Boris at times applies certain other Trumpian methods – such as seeking to exclude the journalists or publications that don’t support his policies or political leanings
- Perhaps emboldened by Trump’s actions, it appears that the decision not to sack Mr Cummings is a strategic one. I suspect that Boris is planning to simply front it out. After all, what has he really got to lose? So far, only one minister has resigned. I suspect unless there is a mass Conservative walk-out (unlikely), Mr Cummings will remain in government. Boris believes that all he has to do is wait.
Turning then to the macro issues this creates. By enabling Mr Cummings to stay on as an advisor, Boris creates the following problems:
- Immediate problem 1: the country decides to ignore lockdown. After all, if Dominic can drive nearly 300 miles with suspected Coronavirus, the public can do the same.
Immediate problem 2: a leap in cases, NHS hospitals are overwhelmed. More deaths.
Longer term problem 1: failure to sack Dominic means in the future, unelected advisors amass huge power in central government, and thanks to Boris’ precedent, are untouchable. What does that say about democracy here?
Longer term problem 2: the UK government is already largely filled with middle aged, white, privately educated males – two of whom seem unable to accept a) culpability and b) consequences. Who represents everybody else? And if those in government protect each other, where does the accountability lie? Who is ultimately responsible for upholding democracy if we don’t have ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour – i.e. recognising when the time has come to remove somebody from their post
The PR View
There’s a saying that goes along the lines that once an advisor / MP becomes the story, it’s time for them to go – did Alistair Campbell say that? There’s usually a tipping point at which their position becomes untenable and they either fall upon their sword or they are given the boot.
If I was advising a government that wanted to the public to continue to heed the messages around self-isolation and social distancing, and try to rebuild its popularity and avoid a further, very public party munity; I would advise Boris to lose Mr Cummings without further delay.
The Coronavirus outbreak has been challenging for everybody on many levels, and people have been asked to pull together and make sacrifices. The public wants to see these sacrifices reflected across all levels of society – if the Queen can isolate etc.
To retain somebody in government who is now seen by many to have used his privileged position to his advantage, through either misjudgment or arrogance, is a serious misstep. Mr Cummings must go, and quickly.
We have blogged previously about communications during Coronavirus – in March we talked about changing communications trends and when Boris was hospitalised we discussed what the government needed to do to maintain good communications practice in his absence.
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