LONDON – Dominic Cummings helped Boris Johnson win power by pitting the people against the elite. Johnson’s Conservative administration has branded itself “the People’s Government.”
The prime minister’s populist appeal has been hammered by news that, as the coronavirus outbreak raged, chief adviser Cummings drove 250 miles (400 kilometers) to his parents’ house while he was falling ill with suspected COVID-19 — allegedly flouting lockdown rules that the government had imposed on the rest of the country.
Cummings says he traveled to the family farm in northeast England so that his nieces could care for his 4-year-old son if he and his wife both became sick. But that explanation cut little ice with many Britons, who say they have endured isolation, anxiety and sometimes loss in order to follow government advice to “Stay Home ... Save Lives.”
On Tuesday, junior Scotland minister Douglas Ross quit Johnson’s Conservative government, saying “the vast majority of people” didn't agree with Cummings’ action.
“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,” Ross wrote in a resignation letter. “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
Johnson, however, appears determined to hang onto an aide who has been dubbed “Boris’ brain,” even if it fractures his government and erodes Britain’s response to the pandemic.
Arguably, Johnson owes his job to Cummings, a self-styled disrupter who disdains the political establishment and slouches through the halls of government in sweatpants and T-shirts.
In 2016, Cummings honed populist messages that helped the “leave” campaign, co-led by Johnson, win Britain's EU membership referendum. He is credited with coming up with the campaign’s powerfully simple slogan: “Take back control.” He also hired a firm linked to Cambridge Analytica, which detractors say unleashed the poison of data-harvesting and social-media manipulation into the British political bloodstream.