Thank you to everyone who has been in touch to let me know their views on Dominic Cummings; I’m grateful for everyone who has written to me and spelt out their views so plainly, whatever those views happen to be.
From reading every one of those emails (although not, yet, having been able to get back to everyone), it’s obvious that people are very concerned about what has happened. Residents have highlighted their real frustration and, in some cases, anger. Many have told me about sacrifices they have made and difficulties experienced over the last two months to help tackle coronavirus. I understand all of that and, on a personal level, I have had many of those same difficulties and challenges. Like so many others, I didn’t see most of my family for two months. Many people I know have caught the virus and I couldn’t help or support them, other than down the phone, when they needed comfort. Very sadly, an extended family member of mine passed away of coronavirus a few weeks ago. It’s been grim – and so many people have had much worse experiences than I have.
So, when people asked my view on the Dominic Cummings situation, I wanted to wait to give you a proper, considered view. And, after considering it over the weekend, I’m going to go through my thinking in detail.
Firstly, for those wanting a short and sharp answer: I’m afraid I cannot give you one. I didn’t have the evangelical certainty of some early on Saturday that he had unquestionably done the wrong thing. I refuse to draw an immediate and snap conclusion, based on inadequate information, rumour and innuendo. And, even now, twenty-four hours after the press conference yesterday, I remain of the view this is a finely balanced issue and one that deserves more thought than some press and commentators have offered.
Yesterday, Dominic Cummings told us his side of the story. That was absolutely necessary and the right thing to do. A series of charges (many unfair) had been levelled at him and we needed to hear his explanation. I’m glad that he made his statement and, as he said himself, it would have been better if he had done it sooner.
Secondly is the question of whether what he did was reasonable. From what I can see, there is a pretty balanced judgement to be made here. He wanted to protect his child in the event that he and his wife became incapacitated. I don’t fault him on that. Should he have done all of the things he told us about yesterday? In hindsight, maybe not. Other people may take different views but I saw someone yesterday whose ultimate answer – that he tried to do the best for his family – was pretty straightforward even if the underlying detail was tortuous and involved.
Over the past day, I’ve tried to ask myself a single question: what I would have done? The honest answer to that remains, still, that I don’t know. I can see why some people would have made the trip and I can also understand why others wouldn’t. That isn’t fence-sitting; it’s a recognition that everyone’s real lives are complex and it’s often impossible to put ourselves in the shoes of people making difficult judgements. We’ve all tried our hardest to fit into these restrictive and difficult guidelines for the sake of everyone but, ultimately, sixty five million lives will never go neatly and continuously into such constraints.
Taking Cummings out of the equation for a moment, where I’m much clearer is that the guidelines did include the ability for people to take other decisions in extenuating circumstances. Most of my job over the last two months has been to try to help people whose lives don’t fit neatly into the guidelines. I have spent hours on long phone calls, often with other MPs of all parties, going through a myriad of scenarios that the regulations could never hope to cover; returning from university when you weren’t supposed to travel, helping relocate to another part of the country for important, very serious personal circumstances, family members in real need a long way away, coming back into the country, not coming back into the country, visiting a second home for animal welfare issues and so on and so on. The list has been long and varied. It could easily have included a resident with the same question as Cummings. And, each time, I’ve tried to help work through the guidance, identify the options and help people decide how to approach it. Sometimes people have had to do things using one of the exemptions. Other times they haven’t.
I’ve never been a politician who throws stones and I try to be relatively temperate in my judgement. People are generally trying to do the right thing and, where politicians (or advisers) are concerned, they are mostly in it for the right reasons. In my three years in politics, I haven’t really seen “one rule for one and one for another”. I’ve seen people mostly do the right thing and sometimes not. That’s human nature.
So, if you want me to condemn someone on the basis of a finely balanced judgement that he has made then, given the information I have, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to accept that he was trying to do the best he could in difficult circumstances. He knows, because he told us yesterday, that some people will agree and some people won’t. And I’m going to continue to believe that most people do the right thing most of the time – not because they were told to by Government or because a letter came through the door (as important as they were). They did the right thing because it’s what people do.
The British people are a fair-minded lot. And I can totally understand why they are frustrated at the moment. Yet, being fair also means being willing to give people the benefit of the doubt at times, even if the judgement call could have gone either way. That’s not me towing the party line or trotting out what the whips have told me. I’ve gone against my party on enough issues that I hope my constituents know that I try to think things through. And on this one, I’m sorry but I can’t, based on what I know at the moment, join the frenzy to condemn. And neither am I going to condemn the Irish Prime Minister, the scientist on SAGE, the Scottish Medical Officer, Labour MPs or anyone else that made a value judgement or, in some cases, what looks like a debatable decision. People are human. My starting point is they are all trying to do their best and they do the right thing the vast majority of the time.
And, frankly, like I said on Facebook Live on Sunday, I don’t want us to go down a road as a country where we are deciding what was acceptable or not in every crevice of people’s personal lives. Sometimes there are judgements to be made which are balanced. That’s not me excusing Cummings. It’s me saying I don’t think we really want to be in a political world where we are litigating how many times someone stopped for petrol or the toilet habits of a four-year old. We can do better than that.
Now, I know that for some people this won’t be enough. And to those, I say, in advance, I’m sorry. Yet, I’m not sure some of those with the racing certainties of recent days are actually looking to discuss. They made their mind up at the start or, in the case of a few, long before the story even came out.
For many others, they may remain sceptical after days of stories. Some of you just aren’t convinced and, even if you were, you still find it concerning. And I get that. We’re in a difficult time and our frustrations are high at the moment. I hope, in time, we can look back and say that, even if you still think he made the wrong decision, that you can see how someone might have come to that conclusion.
So, based on what I know, I’m not going to condemn Dominic for wrestling with the guidance and trying to work out what to do his best in difficult circumstances. So many of my constituents have gone through the same agonising questions. When they came to ask me for advice, I tried to help rather than condemn or criticise. It was the right thing to do then and it’s the right thing to do now. Lives are complicated. Decisions are difficult. Judgements are balanced. I think most people will get that, if not now, in time. And, as a politician, I want to tell it as I see it, even if sometimes some people don’t agree with me. It might have been easier to write a one-liner here that he should resign. But, genuinely, based on what I currently know, I don’t think he should. And you elected me to think through these things. You might not agree with my judgement on this one. But I hope you can see that I’ve at least thought about it and accept that, on balance, it’s a legitimate conclusion to draw.