After a week of burning controversy, the confirmation by Durham police that they would not have pressed charges even if one of the journeys taken by Dominic Cummings “might have” been against the spirit of the regulations will be seen by some as a sign that the story has been overblown and by others as part of a cynical cover up. Anyone who knows the degree to which the police rightly maintain their operational independence will know that it is not the latter. However I see it as primarily a reminder of the good sense that the vast majority of police forces have shown throughout the period of lockdown in focusing on engaging, explaining and only where necessary enforcing rather than dealing out exemplary punishments.
It is also, as they made clear in their statement, a reminder that they do and should treat people no differently if they hold office or positions of power than anyone else and that their whole approach to enforcement during this extremely difficult period has been one of policing by consent and of advising and correcting. The heat of the arguments over the past week and the fact that people on both sides have received death threats is a reminder of how emotive an issue this has become and that we should all be striving to disagree better and more reasonably. I absolutely condemn the appalling threats against the Bishop of Worcester for expressing an opinion on this matter. Nobody should have to fear for their lives and their family as a result of expressing a political opinion and whilst I disagree with his conclusion in this case, I have the utmost admiration for Bishop John as a wise and generous spirited man.
I hold no particular brief for Mr Cummings and reserved judgement on the issue until I had heard the explanation that was set out in his statement last weekend. Only at that point and having heard the facts, in the knowledge that the police had been made aware of his movements but had not pressed charges did I express an opinion. I felt that it was reasonable that he should be given the same benefit of the doubt that others would receive in the same circumstances and although I would not have taken the same decisions, I could understand why the pressures of his situation with a house under siege from the media, a sick wife, a significant risk of falling ill himself and no immediate childcare led him to take the decisions he did. The police clearly reached the same conclusion as they were clear in their statement that his journey to Durham, the original source of the story and cause for public concern, was justifiable and within the regulations. The fact that he did not as had been suggested, directly visit his parents, break social distancing or attend a family funeral whilst there, although each of these allegations helped to build up the sense of outrage, seems to have been ignored by many of the people calling for his head. Of course many will see his explanation of the second shorter trip as odd and it was this half hour drive which the police concluded “might have” gone against the spirit of the regulations. They have set out that if they had stopped him on it or interviewed him at the time they would have explained why this was so and asked him to return to where he was safely isolated near Durham. This is perfectly reasonable to me and looks like the kind of sensible policing that we would all hope for and expect in such circumstances. If any individual or employee in normal life were to have such a conversation with the police then it would not be something that they would expect to have to report to their boss or to face further questions over let alone to face calls to resign.
The key thing that upset so many people about this story was the suggestion that Mr Cummings was getting special treatment because of who he was or somehow considered himself above the law. He made clear in his statement that this was not the case and rightly or wrongly he believed that he was acting at all times within the spirit of the regulations. Where there is any room for doubt on this, which I accept there is with regard to the trip to Barnard’s Castle, it is clear that the police would have treated him no differently to anyone else.
I cannot see how in these circumstances it should be considered a scandal that he should remain in post. Another suggestion that has been made is that he should resign to set an example because he was in some way responsible for all the rules that other people have been having to obey. This is also wide of the mark as the detail of these rules is always drafted by large teams of people, the vast majority of them non-political civil servants and the role of special advisers in the process is merely to provide further advice and support to their political masters as to which versions to accept. Having been involved in many of the internal discussions over various elements of lockdown and the economic packages to support people through it, I cannot recall any occasions when advisers or chiefs of staff were directly involved in the drafting of the detail. But just as importantly the period in which most of the details were being worked out and put into action was precisely the period in which Mr Cummings was away from the process because he was isolating with his family. I do regret that the story had run for so long and with such heights of speculation by the time the Prime Minister asked him to provide a public explanation that most people’s minds were already made up and that it became more of a trial by media and public opinion than anything else. I do also think personally that he could have struck a more apologetic tone and I would have been happy to hear him apologise for any offence that has been taken at the appearance of his situation. However this is a question of style rather than of substance and not a sacking matter.
I fully support the principle that it should be for the Prime Minister to appoint his own advisers and that like any employer he should hold the final say over whether and when to give them the benefit of the doubt. What puzzles me and I find upsetting about the whole saga is that of all the hundreds of emails and letters I have received, there are none that seek any degree of compromise or balance, they either portray him as a heinous sinner who must be punished, or in a smaller number of cases as a persecuted saint – a martyr to the media. I don’t believe that anyone deserves to be treated in such a way and publicly vilified or for that matter sanctified, purely on the basis of media allegations. I appreciate that millions of people have been faced with very challenging situations from the pressure and difficulties of living under lockdown.
My team and I have been in the same situation and we are all conscious of the huge stress and concern this period has evoked. I have at all times ensured the strength of feeling relayed to me regarding the Mr Cummings situation has been passed on to the appropriate colleagues but I do not think that strength of feeling alone is a reason for anyone to lose their job. I accept the principle that when rules and law are applied they should apply to everyone equally. If the police had concluded that Mr Cummings had acted against the law and that he should be charged with doing so, I would be clear he would have had to resign. However they have reached no such conclusion and the detailed explanation they have set out of what they would have done confirms that they would have treated him the same as anyone else, explaining where they felt there was any departure from the regulations and encouraging him to return to the safe isolation that he and his family had found.
It is unfortunate that this story has to any extent distracted attention away from the huge national effort in defeating the virus and I want to assure constituents that I will continue to focus on how we can keep making positive steps to tackle it. Just in the last week the sustained fall in both infections and the death rate gives hope that we are past the worst and the launch of test and trace gives hope for a more nuanced approach to lockdown. I know that so many people have made sacrifices and faced huge challenges over this period and these have helped to save many more lives.
From a personal perspective with family members who have been in isolation for weeks, I can fully appreciate that anybody deliberately flouting the rules or endangering people should cause outrage and I would fully support action being taken where this is the case. However where this is not the case I do think we should be prepared to presume innocence and give people, whoever they are the benefit of the doubt. We should focus on the huge number of people including the police, carers and NHS workers who are doing an exceptional job in these circumstances and we should continue to support them, not by throwing brickbats at our political opponents but by staying alert, keeping ourselves and our families safe and following the evolving rules.