The furore over whether or not Dominic Cummings broke lockdown regulations has served as a timely reminder of the degree to which some of the most important rules that underpin the proper functioning of our democratic system have either been ignored or broken since the people of the UK voted for Brexit in 2016.
The police have now issued a full statement on the ‘Cummingsgate’ affair. Despite a blizzard of mainstream press accusations to the contrary, ‘Durham Constabulary does not consider that by locating himself at his father’s premises, Mr Cummings committed an offence contrary to regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020’. As for the road trip to Barnard Castle, the police ‘have concluded that there might have been a minor breach of the Regulations that would have warranted police intervention. Durham Constabulary view this as minor because there was no apparent breach of social distancing.’
Even to the most casual observer, it must be obvious that there is more to the onslaught on Cummings than simply a press duty to hold the PM’s adviser to account over what the police describe as a possible ‘minor breach of the Regulations.’ As we approach the end of June – a crunch point in the Brexit negotiations – we are seeing the roll out of an orchestrated campaign to secure at the very least an extension of the transition period and, beyond that, of a reversal of Brexit altogether. A bitter and resentful remain establishment seized on what they saw as the perfect opportunity to hoist Cummings by his own petard. The man who had rallied the people against the elite so successfully was now, in their eyes, himself guilty of assuming that the rules didn’t apply to him. The hysterical demands for Cummings to go may now be subsiding, but at one point they came close to resembling a lynch mob.
But let’s get back to the immediate issue of rule breaking. We are fortunate to live in one of the world’s great democracies in which citizens benefit from the rule of law and freedom of speech. For democracies such as ours to function effectively there are a whole range of rules and duties which those in power must observe. If they do not, ordinary people get left behind and narrow vested interests and corrupt practices become entrenched. Where people are paid by the taxpayer, respect for those rules and duties becomes critically important.
If we pride ourselves on living in a democracy, it goes without saying that we should respect the verdict of the electorate. But, despite regular pledges from many senior Remainer politicians to accept the instructions given to them by voters, it has been truly astonishing to witness over the past four years repeated and determined efforts to undermine or neuter Brexit. And now it is happening again. Evidence of coup plotting and disruptive manoeuvring at home is mounting.
While I respect those Remainer politicians who have stood for and secured office on an avowedly anti-Brexit agenda, we should call out those politicians who were elected on a manifesto to deliver Brexit but who are now working to wreck it. I would submit that this is rule-breaking several orders of magnitude more serious than anything Cummings may or may not have been guilty of.
It must be absolutely galling for the leadership of the Foreign Office to be sidelined in Brexit negotiations – with a special adviser, albeit a former diplomat, placed in charge of the UK negotiating team. But the civil servants only have themselves to blame for the lack of trust shown in them by Number 10. As a former diplomat, a dawning realisation shocked me into becoming a Briefings for Britain contributor early last year: it had become blindingly obvious that the requirement for civil servants to act impartially was being widely ignored – particularly at the most senior levels. Since we are on the subject of rule breaking, we should remind ourselves of the Civil Service code, which states that civil servants must not ‘allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.’
It is worth recalling just how close our culture of civil service impartiality came to tipping over the edge in August last year, when Lord Kerslake – who headed the Home Civil Service 2012-14 – proposed during a Radio 4 Today interview that the Civil Service should bypass the government in order to avoid a no deal Brexit. He also spoke to the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who quoted him as saying: ‘We are reaching the point where the Civil Service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.’
One would have thought that the December general election result would have put this kind of deeply anti-democratic talk to bed. However, we are now seeing reports from usually reliable sources in the press that while the PM and Cummings were laid low with Coronavirus, senior civil servants – in what would have constituted a clear breach of government policy – were colluding with Brussels to agree a further Brexit extension. If true, this is deeply worrying – and puts anything Cummings may or may not have done into the shade. Surely there should be a laser-like investigative focus on this from the press?
The duty to act impartially extends to the judiciary and state-funded broadcasters such as the BBC. We should recall the Supreme Court ruling on prorogation last year. Many were left wondering at the time whether their Lordships could be said to be truly politically impartial. As the LSE’s Professor Peter Ramsay then argued, the judgment came down to a ‘political interpretation of political events.’ A friend and former FCO colleague, an ardent Remainer, gleefully texted me immediately after the verdict – and without any apparent sense of irony – ‘Lady Hale for PM!’. He, for one, clearly had no doubt where her Ladyship’s political sympathies lay and little obvious sense of the required separation of powers between the judiciary and executive.
And then there is the BBC. It is deeply depressing to witness the decline of this great institution from a mighty observer, reporter, educator and entertainer, to mere promoter of a cultural and political agenda set by a self-selecting tranche of the liberal elite. Brexit has seen the publicly-funded BBC lose its reputation for impartiality. The judgement on Cummings pronounced by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight on 26 May was so egregious that it left the BBC with little option but to rule it as a breach of her duty to be impartial. There is no sign of any move to sack her, despite the fact that this is hardly a first offence. Nor has Maitlis shown any sense of remorse for her behaviour and clearly feels under no compulsion whatsoever to resign. One rule for her…