Dominic Cummings’ lockdown drive may turn out to be a career-defining episode for the aggressive, plain-speaking and, until now, hugely influential political advisor.
Dominic Cummings Becomes the Story
Political advisors are supposed to know what works with the public: what has cut through, what the public will get behind and in the end how they will vote. It is this nose for the herd mentality and how it will play out amongst the various institutions and players with power – that ‘political advisers’ are paid for. Dominic Cummings appears to have either misjudged this one – or realised he was gambling with his career and drove north to Durham anyway.
Watching his performance in the garden at Number 10, many people, especially many parents of young children, will understand the dilemma and his actions. Most will see it as in a different league to the Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, who twice broke lockdown to visit her second home. In his statement, Cummings provided evidence that what he did was not illegal. Lockdown rules allowed that – especially for those with young children – it may not always be possible for everyone to comply with the strict ‘stay at home’ message.
Cummings Falls Foul of the Fairness Principle
The problem is that Cummings’ actions fall foul of the fairness principle. Others did stay at home in difficult circumstances: did not visit their children in hospital, did not see their father before he died and so on. And the fact that Cummings went home to Durham when things got tough, is seen as simply not fair.
A sense of fairness, or fair play, is a very powerful driver of human action. I must admit I hadn’t fully understood this until the last few weeks. But an innate, ingrained and universal sense of fairness has been a theme in two of my lockdown reads. Both stress all human beings are born with this sense of fairness and both stress that you ignore it at your peril.
In the Chris Voss book on negotiation, ‘Never Split the Difference’, the author points out that even in highly unlikely situations – like negotiation with kidnappers (he was an International FBI Negotiator) – ‘a sense of fairness’ is something that can be used by either side. One of Voss’ ‘tricks’ was apparently to tell the baddies that he wanted to be ‘fair’ with them. He also built a reputation or brand for being a ‘fair’ negotiator, sticking to his word, etc. But the crucial phrase here is on page 122.
‘The most powerful word in negotiation is ‘fair’. As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.’
He later mentions research that even monkeys will throw a tantrum if they don’t feel they are treated fairly. The sense of fairness is in our genes.
A Sense of Fairness is in our Genes
The fairness point also makes a significant appearance in another book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors similarly point out that our sense of fairness is innate and almost certainly evolved as a way to live in harmony with each other and manage conflict. But the crucial point for this argument is that in times of war, governments take action to make society seem fairer. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:
‘Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of an effort to gain support for the war effort’.
To state the obvious, if the cooperation of the majority of people is thought to be essential there is a need to convince them that the burden and sacrifice are being equally shared. And that is where Cumming’s has tripped up.
And it seems to be this fairness point that really hit a nerve with Church of England bishops. They took to Twitter to lambast the Prime Minister for supporting Cummings’ decision to drive to his parents’ farm during the lockdown. Here is what they had to say. Who even knew there were so many bishops on Twitter … but the fact they were all prompted to get tough by this is story, is pretty telling.
Cummings’ own performance yesterday was not arrogant or belligerent. He did explain his thought processes, but he also refused to apologise. It is the nature of the beast. But so often half an apology is worse than no apology at all.
For anyone who wants to see how to handle aggressive questioning, the Cummings performance is pretty strong. [I feel the FT’s coverage is uncharacteristically misleading] He is calm and respectful although clearly rattled. He is also apparently employing the ‘till they drop’ press conference technique which aims to give journalists as much time and access as they like, in the hope of arriving at the point where all questions have been answered and no one cares anymore. There is a fictional version of this in a West Wing episode that is a great illustration of the principle. I am clearly not the only person who remembers this from more than a decade ago.
At the time of writing it is not clear whether Cummings has done enough to save his job. However, one thing is clear to me. He would have had a better chance if a) he had done the press conference a few days earlier and b) if he had apologised properly.
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