Keep up to date with the parliament as Avin presents her narrative on the turmoltous world of British politics in her column, Beyond the Benches, where she’ll explore the twists and turns of our government.
Wednesday 27th May, 2020 saw what was probably one of the most important Zoom calls in the history of British politics; a 90+ minute meeting which was to determine the life or death of Boris Johnson’s career and government. But let’s rewind a little, shall we?
In the midst of a global pandemic, the public have been no strangers to front pages of senior figures flouting the very rules they put in force, as led by Professor Neil Fergusson with his affair and Catherine Calderwood with her second home. Although, when news broke on Friday 22nd May that the Prime Minister’s infamous senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, was set to join them, shock waves were sent across the country, as unlike the other two, Cummings refused to quit. The consequence? A catastrophic mess, one that Ministers were forced to sweep under a carpet, and yet this carpet is full of glaring holes and shameless stains. Cummings’ story, nor the heaps of excuses offered by various Ministers, were convincing anybody and their inconsistencies gradually led to nationwide anger, or at least an understanding that we’ve all been deceived.
Fast-forward five days later, or more importantly, five daily press conferences later, to Wednesday: this story was very much still at the top of the agenda as a makeshift alliance of politicians, the media and the public were all calling out for Cummings’ resignation. However, it must be firmly noted that throughout this debacle, Boris always had the advantage of timing on his side. This has never been more evident, since, as it happens, the week after the scandal first broke out actually coincided with a week-long parliamentary recess. With time at his side, he has been able to avoid looking into the eyes of his opposition, Kier Starmer, at PMQs, saving him from being held accountable in what would have been a barely- restrained tone of utter disappointment.
Nonetheless, what criticism he dodged from Starmer, he was instead met with by a herd of politicians, from all parties, impatiently seeking answers- bringing us to the Zoom call. For the first time since becoming Prime Minister in July 2019, Boris was to come face-to-face with the Liaison Committee. Confronted with a politicians’ equivalent to quick fire questions about his government, the PM found himself in a virtual interrogation room- one with 37 MPs. But what this Liaison Committee meeting really represented was whether the Cummings story would continue to line the media or not, and it all came down to how Boris would react. So how did he do?
It was no surprise that the PM would be contested about his advisor’s continued employment, but what followed was an array of methods he had fostered in a desperate bid to change the topic. While it is no secret that this government loves a slogan, Boris didn’t have to look far to think about potential responses to questions. Despite not being as short and snappy as his more famous examples, the repetitiveness of his replies to any remarks regarding Cummings can be perceived as rather tactical. By answering all such questions with “I’ve already spoken on the matter” and offering condolences to the public who have made sacrifices, it made the monumental event of a Prime Minister being held to account a rather dull piece of television to watch, with no sense of admission and, vitally, no apology.
What also followed was a variety of ways of carrying out the old ‘deny, deny, deny’ technique. With his response to the first question, about Cummings directly blaming the media for printing false allegations, as well as other mentions of media emphasis on this story, it appears that Boris Johnson is perfectly happy to play the ‘blame game’ if it ensures he can avoid any sort of accountability. As the grilling also included non-Tory MPs, it further allowed the PM to dismiss any challenge regarding his advisor as a mere gain of “party political points”. A rather risky approach though, as it dangers the undermining of public concerns, which the MPs are (in theory) meant to shield and defend. However, as said before, any attempt for a line to be drawn under the fiasco is given a mighty boost by the luck of timing.
With the massive government initiative of ‘Test, Track and Trace’ being released the day after (Thursday 28th May), as part of the government’s continued attempt to tackle the Coronavirus outbreak, the huge scale of such a campaign could be enough to completely overshadow any previous messes. You didn’t have to look beyond today’s front pages to see that, with most containing no trace of Cummings at all. Therefore, while the Liaison Committee showcased a confident but obvious attempt of Boris avoiding answering most questions posed to him, that very meeting would have continued to haunt him, had it not been for the fact that it was not in Parliament during a PMQs session, and that it would be followed by his party’s next step to contain the pandemic.
If Cummings is not further scrutinised, both in Parliament and by the media, he might have outpaced any interrogation, and the Tories may have successfully weaselled their way out of the fiasco under Boris’ staunch defence. Perhaps new evidence may bring the affair to the forefront again, but for now, it seems Cummings is safe despite public opinion.
Avin Houro is a second year historian at QMUL, with a particular interest exploring and covering the politics of our isles.