Why did Boris Johnson stand by Dominic Cummings at the expense of his own popularity?
It raises questions about the character of the prime minister, who has never been particularly clubbable, nor generally shown a Greyfriars Bobby-level of devotion to his closest. I used to work with Johnson on the Daily Telegraph, and so asked former colleagues what they reckoned.
First, we agreed, is the political calculation. Cummings has been a talisman for Johnson, initially during the 2016 Brexit referendum, then at the December 2019 general election.
Second is his attachment to the concept of omertà. The prime minister’s life has been torrid, but he hangs on to some proven friends — some, such as Darius Guppy, more troublesome even than Cummings.
The third reason is the one I find most compelling. Johnson may be a populist, but he does not like being told what to do, perhaps particularly by the public.
At the Telegraph, he would become shifty as soon he was given instructions. Whatever we decided would be the subject of his column, I could be sure that he would write something else. When he was mayor of London, he took great pleasure in disobeying the rules of the road. The very reason he liked cycling was that you get to travel on your own terms and times, unlike on public transport. As one former colleague put it: being prime minister is the only job Johnson is suited for, because he could never guarantee obedience to anyone else.
What puzzles some of his supporters is why Johnson and Cummings could not have been more contrite and emollient. Why they could not bring themselves to say sorry.
The most downbeat encounter I ever had with Johnson came after he was packed off to Liverpool by the then Conservative leader Michael Howard to apologise for offensive remarks made about the city in The Spectator under his editorship. He could not bear the humiliation and what he regarded as the fake sanctimony of critics.
He has been both lucky and unlucky. The Merrie England mayor became the prime minister who imposed the most draconian social rules this country has seen. I imagine he was torn, as he was originally on Brexit. On one side, he would be appalled by the conformity and suspicion that the lockdown has unleashed. On the other was that near-death experience that made him more compassionate and, for perhaps the first time in his life, fearful.
Was the problem for him, in hindsight, not the adherence to the rules but the inflexible and inhumane rules themselves — the same rules that forbade the parents of a dying teenager to be at their son’s bedside? One of his favourite sayings is from Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” So when did he convert to straight lines?
Perhaps when Johnson, Cummings and the whole Leave crowd became addicted to the simple brilliance of their slogans. The irony is that sending out a more nuanced message might have left Cummings in the clear.
One question asked by journalists of Cummings is why, when his eyesight failed, his wife did not drive. On such details, outcomes hang. I remember back in 2011, when Johnson was mayor and I was editor of the London Evening Standard, there was public fury that he did not return from his holiday to deal with the London riots. Day after day, our front-page headlines demanded: “Where is the mayor?” Was it, we asked, arrogance or indifference?
The truth came down to a domestic detail. His former wife, a formidable QC, was also particularly small, and the car they had hired for their North American holiday was a Winnebago. Her feet did not reach the pedals. How could he abandon her?
Before I actually arrived at BBC Radio 4’s Today programme three years ago, I received much correspondence on Twitter accusing me of having ruined it. Now that critics assume I have already left, they are commenting on how much it is improved. In fact, I am leaving in September, but I do like to think that the programme has found its rhythm recently. There is something about its tone that suits the times.
We are endlessly questioning ourselves about how best to pursue the truth. Should interviews with politicians be adversarial, inquisitorial, or conversational? I think I have learnt from Johnson that all fixed rules have exceptions, and that a news programme constantly evolves. This week I am delivering a seminar — by Zoom, of course — to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, on the relationship between the government and the media. I am pleased to say that after 35 years in newspapers, magazines and radio, I do not have all the answers.
In common with the FT, the Today programme has been produced almost entirely remotely since lockdown. It will be strange returning from Norfolk, where I have been for weeks, to a world of heels and handbags. I will no longer be able to mop the kitchen floor during meetings. There will be no soundtrack of birdsong.
Sarah Sands is editor of the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4
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