In the list of ordinary families’ worries this weekend, I guarantee you Dominic Cummings will not make the top 100. There are plenty of big things to preoccupy everyone: how will their kids settle back into school this week? Will their employer shed jobs when furlough payments taper out? Is it safe to take the children over to see elderly grandparents?
Perhaps they are wrong not to care, but other than the minority of political obsessives, the Cummings affair is beyond an irrelevance. People might roll their eyes, or swear casually at the TV when they see Cummings, but their minds are elsewhere. Polls on Westminster stories, without focus group context, are useless; these polls always amplify the irrelevant, failing to put questions in their proper context. Over the last three months, Cummings’ name has never once cropped up unprompted in a focus group I have moderated.
The Cummings affair was a massive time suck for Government and therefore traumatic. But it will not and cannot have caused lasting damage in the eyes of the public. At worst, it will make people question why the Prime Minister thinks this scruffy Northerner is so great. This pales into total insignificance compared to, say, early public irritation with the lack of help for the self-employed.
The real question Downing Street should worry about is this: what can they realistically move on to? After all, it is not as if they can start announcing a raft of feel good policies to unite Britain. The chances are we are heading into a serious recession and potentially a second wave of the Coronavirus in the autumn. Their massive primary short-term political challenge is showing they have the right priorities and the skills to weather the coming storms.
They must do three things. Firstly, most importantly, show they have a plan to make the NHS work for the long-term. In part because of the Government’s own messaging, there is a sense the NHS survived by the skin of its teeth in the Spring. The Government needs to show it has learned from successes and failures in the first wave and that changes are being made to ensure the next wave is dealt with more successfully.
Secondly, show they going to do everything possible to help businesses to retain staff by giving the economy as much of a boost as possible. The furlough scheme was a roaring success; so much so, in fact, people do not seem to have noticed the economy was going down the tubes as they sat on their sofas. As support is removed, people will soon confront the reality the Government protected them from.
Good deeds rarely go unpunished, and the likelihood is people will be angry when unemployment rises sharply. Through a mixture of fiscal and regulatory change, the Government must demonstrate it is doing everything in its power to give businesses the chance to grow, or at least stabilise, and therefore keep staff on their books. Raising their taxes and putting new demands on them over the summer would be a bad idea.
Thirdly, and yes less tangibly, the Government needs to project an image of competence and judgement. The public cut the Government slack throughout the early phases of the lockdown because they seemed to have their act together. The lack of PPE, early problems on testing and the slow arrival of help for the self-employed could have gone much worse if people were questioning their competence more generally. If the Cummings affair hits them anywhere important, it is here: the whole thing was a mess – and messes make everyone look stupid, regardless of the facts. It is hardly helpful advice: “avoid being stupid”. But there are some specific things they can do. Like dropping their sugar tax idea down a great big hole. When we have just gone through one of the biggest healthcare challenges in history, going on about sugary cereals, rightly or wrongly, is just going to look weird.
Those MPs wondering whether to join the mini campaign to attack Cummings should think about these political challenges the Government will face over the summer. If they think Cummings would be a hindrance on the NHS, the economy, and the wider reputation of Government for competence, they should give him a public kicking and name their suggested replacement. If, on the other hand, they think he can help ensure the machine is prepared for the next crisis, they would be better off staying quiet.
James Frayne is a Founding Partner of the opinion research specialist Public First