Westminster View - Gale's Virtual View from Westminster May 2020
May. Too many Cummings but no Goings. Thousands wait for package holiday refunds as the travel industry goes into meltdown. The Home Office does the Hokey Cokey over quarantine while the Home Secretary herself struggles to get a handle on the largest number of illegal migrants to cross La Manche in a single month. Though to be fair she is not assisted by the escort for rubber dinghies helpfully provided by M.Macron`s matelots. The Salford Broadcasting Corporation is on the rack over editorial bias. “Infamy, In For Me…..”etc but Covid 19 is no left-wing plot. Furlough is costing the Treasury £8 billion and rising and the Chancellor says that we face the worst recession for 300 years. Even the Father of the House cannot recall that far back. The 75th Anniversary of VE Day is celebrated virtually, Katherine Jenkins sings from an otherwise empty Albert Hall accompanied down the line by Dame Vera Lynn and Her Maj addresses the world from the “Windsor Bubble”. NHS hospitals have weathered the worst of a predicted tsunami of patients but has that been at the expense of elderly patients decanted to expire of Coronavirus in residential homes? The Prime Minister`s 60-page `roadmap` out of lockdown takes the brakes off – literally – and seaside towns within easy reach of cities are flooded with visitors while all facilities are closed. A `virtual` Eurovision Song Contest of All-time Greats is won by ABBA. Now there`s a surprise. This season`s Love Island, due to be recorded in Majorca, is cancelled leaving the contestants, presumably, to stay in bed at home. Meanwhile plans are afoot to start filming on some of the nation`s most-watched soap operas while excluding older actors and maintaining social distancing on the set. That should make for some interesting punch-ups and love scenes. Sir Keir Starmer makes his first appearance at Prime Minister`s Question time as Leader of the Opposition before a sparsely-populated Commons chamber. A forensic mind he may have, charisma he has not. Testing and Tracing is launched prematurely to deflect attention from L`affaire Cummings. We have to hope and believe that it will bed down and work but at present it has more teething problems than a dental surgery. Across the Atlantic the President tweets while the United States burns. Malaria drugs are no cure for Covid 19 and they won`t solve race riots either. Our Secretary of State for Health, looking not surprisingly battered after twelve weeks of the toughest job in Government at present, calls upon the nation do it`s “Civic Duty” and to comply with the instructions of the Government. And Mr. Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, wants Parliament to sit again without the benefits of on-line voting and `virtual` appearances in the Chamber from Members shielded or isolated at home. Mr.Mogg, of course, relies heavily on Nannies but not all in politics find childcare that easy to come by. Ask Mr Cummings.
The handling, by the UK Government, of the pandemic will, in the fullness of time, be the subject of a full and hopefully public inquiry. We need to remember that the disease appeared from China with little or no warning and arrived in a western world that was largely unprepared medically, politically or mentally for such an event. Given the enormity of the problem that had to be addressed from a standing-start and the fact that the skipper was off the bridge and engaged in a near-death experience for a couple of crucial weeks I think that the Government has made a reasonable fist of a very mediocre hand. Back at the beginning, of course, there were the sheer logistical problems of trying to get stranded British subjects home from all over the world. They were not generally in easy-to-retrieve send a chartered flight and get them back bundles. They were scattered far and wide and I found myself making phone calls not just to France and Spain and The Canary Islands obviously but to Peru, The Gambia, New Zealand, Nepal, Iraq, and all over the United States as well, of course, as China and those marooned on board cruise liners either as passengers or crew.. Could we have done better and faster? Yes, possibly, but it is much harder to bring back isolated individuals or couples than it is to repatriate a group of package holidaymakers from one location and thankfully I believe that all of my own constituents are now back home.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, moved very swiftly to put in place a package of measures to protect the employed, through furlough scheme and the self employed through the SEISS (self-employed income support scheme), as well as rate-relief on small business premises and other initiatives to try to keep mothballed businesses afloat. Policies made in a hurry and on the hoof will always be flawed and there has been a considerable element of rough justice in the Treasury approach. A very significant number of people who are the Company Directors of one or two man bands have found themselves without any support at all and the major banks were, at the start of the lockdown slow, sullen , unhelpful and unwilling to change their normal practices to meet the needs of the time. It took a significant degree of action on the part of UK Finance and the Treasury to goad them into support mode and some of the scars will be borne by their customers for a very long time. The Chancellor has now extended his package of support into the Autumn. It is inevitable, I think, that some businesses will never return to the high Streets or the Seafronts and that staff now furloughed will eventually be made redundant. The measures taken have mortgaged the Country for at least a generation to
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has found himself faced with wave after wave of challenges and complaints and the normally confident and cheerful young Cabinet Member has aged visibly since the start of the lockdown. It is very easy to be wise after the event and no doubt the inquiry, when it eventually takes place, will reveal failings. An early dependence upon the theory of `herd immunity` espoused by Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson permitted two major sporting events to take place and possibly dangerously delayed the start of the lockdown at the cost of many lives. A shortage of all manner of facilities and kit, from ventilators (now under-used) through to vital personal protective gowns and masks for those working on the front line led to a frantic scramble to try and source in a hurry and in a global market adequate supplies .This in turn led to a waste of time and energy and mixed messages and policies that could have been avoided. When the emphasis shifted to the testing of those with the disease there was a self-imposed deadline and target figure that the media inevitably played games with and that was virtually impossible to meet but with a little massaging of the figures Hancock hit the target. To be fair, without the deadline we would probably still be behind the curve.
It is unfortunate that the lockdown is, in the eyes of the scientists that we are told we are listening to, being lifted prematurely and the “Test and Trace” programme upon which the easing of restrictions is supposed to be based, was also launched before the programme overseen by Baroness Dido Harding, was ready to roll. The genesis of that haste lies in two factors: justifiable pressure to start to get the nation back to work and to school in the interests of the suffering economy and a need on the part of Downing Street to generate some `good news` and to offer a distraction from the still-growing anger caused by the antics of the Prime Minister`s Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings.
Mr. Cummings has `previous`. He was relieved of his duties in support of the administration by David Cameron, at the time Prime Minister, who described him as a `career psychopath`. Reinstated by Prime Minister Johnson he set about removing from office those who did not fit his particular bill and last autumn he had one ministerial adviser frogmarched out of Downing Street by the police. I have never met the man to speak to but those that I know who have generally have not enjoyed the experience. That has little or nothing to do with his bizarre sense of fashion but rather that his particular form of what some charitably describe as `brilliance` tends to take him and those around him perilously close to the edge of a political precipice.
It is true that it was a Labour-supporting newspaper that broke the news of the Cummings family`s dash, in clear breach of the lockdown rules that he himself had a hand in devising, from London to seek isolation on the family estate in County Durham. That, so far as I can see, is where the “left wing plot” to bring down Cummings begins and ends although it grieves me that subsequent revelations and actions have given comfort to Labours new `Non-Action Man,` Keir Starmer. The criticism of Cummings, one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign, has nothing to do, either, with Brexit. It appears to have escaped the notice of those who suggest otherwise that we have already left the European Union and that the end of the `transition period` is enshrined in law and, with or without Mr. Cummings, will take place at midnight on December 31st of this year. And finally there is, so far as I am aware, no `Tory plot` to remove the PM`s adviser. Speaking for myself I have discussed the matter, as a courtesy, with my own Whip to advise him of my opinions and I have also spoken with the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. As plotting goes that is not exactly conspiratorial!
It was in fact another arch-Brexiteer and former Minister, Steve Baker, who first called for Cummings` resignation on the perfectly reasonable grounds that you cannot have Downing Street demanding that the people of the UK do one thing and suffer in silence while a senior aide does something completely different. I believe that I was, as a `senior backbencher` to use the media descrption, the next to break cover. In a brief statement I said that while as a father and as a grandfather I could understand any parent wanting to protect his child Downing Street could not send out mixed signals at a very dangerous time in the history of our nation and that therefore Cummings` position was no longer tenable. Talk about lighting the blue touchpaper! Within two minutes that story was running on Sky television and I have spent much of the past week while trying to do constituency casework fielding press inquiriries as the story grew more legs than a centipede. Downing Street still does not seem to understand the true depth of public anger, from right across the political spectrum, about this matter. People have been denied the right to sit with dying relatives, to attend funerals, to get married, to hug their children or their grand children or see newborn members of their families in order to fight the virus. Mostly they have done so responsibly and willingly in the national interest and to then see the Prime Minister`s adviser break those rules himself has been too much to bear.
Dominic Cummings has a four year old son who has health problems. He also has a wife who is believed to have had coronavirus. Pleading `childcare needs` he therefore put them in a car and, without informing the Prime Minister or the Head of the Civil service or anyone else he embarked upon a 260-mile journey, allegedly without stopping, to the estate upon which his parents and other members of his family live in County Durham. There is a bit of me that says that, given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing to protect my wife and child. But this is the man who sits right at the heart of Government and advises – some say dictates – policy to the Prime Minister. I have scores of constituents, as has every other MP, who have experienced childcare and many other problems as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic and it is simply not good enough to say that there can be one law for Downing Street and another for everyone else. While some of the media coverage has been scurrilous the notion that, having weathered the illness in Durham, Mr.Cummings then put his wife and child into the car and took a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to `test his eyesight` before driving back to London stretches the bounds of credibility too far.
Literally tens of thousands of e-mails of protest ( I have received over a thousand myself) and more than a million signatures on a petition calling for Cummings` resignation suggest that the Prime Minister has squandered an unacceptable amount of political capital and goodwill defending the indefensible. Mr. Cummings could have used his extraordinary Press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden to at least apologise for the hurt and distress that he has caused. He chose not to do so and for the moment at least it appears that, with the heat shield of the Prime Minister around him, he has survived. But at what cost?
As a result of this less than glorious episode in the history of Number Ten we now have, instead of the `Blitz spirit` fighting the virus, people `Doing a Cummings` when they want to break the rules.