When I first heard that Dominic Cummings was giving a press conference about his midnight flit to Durham, I had to check with my better-informed colleagues on the politics desk that this wasn’t a wind-up. After all, it’s specifically against the special advisers’ code of conduct for them to make public statements. Let alone one in the formal setting of the Downing Street rose garden that had previously been used as the setting for David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s 2010 bromance party celebration. But the Cummings’ show was every bit as box office gold, from his refusal to apologise for anything – Classic Dom could pick a fight in an empty room. There was his admission that he went back to work after his wife fell ill, his belief that having to look after his own child constituted exceptional circumstances, his inability to explain how he and his wife led people to believe they had stayed in London in their Spectator articles, his complaint that the cottage on his father’s farm had been rather basic for his liking. But the trip to Barnard Castle for his wife’s Easter Sunday birthday treat was obviously the highlight. Imagine our finest political brains having had six weeks to come up with a cover story and not being able to do better than an eyesight test. I tweeted that back in the 1970s, I used to take the car for a test drive to see if I was too stoned for a longer journey. The tweet was read by an old friend who pointed out that at least my excuse had the virtue of being true. And that I hadn’t conducted my driving experiments with a four-year-old child in the car. Rather there had been a 21-year-old child behind the wheel.
History has a habit of repeating itself. For many years, the first that my wife and I remembered of our wedding anniversary was when a card from my mother arrived through the letterbox. Now it’s me who has to remind my daughter of her wedding anniversary. We had been chatting over the weekend and she was insistent her anniversary was on the Monday. I was equally insistent that it was today, Tuesday. Obviously you can tell from the fact I am including this in the diary that I turned out to be right. Not something my daughter was happy to admit. Then she wasn’t the one who had got a phone call 10 days before her wedding saying she was planning to get married in the kitchen of her parents-in-law in Minneapolis and that we were welcome to come if we wanted but she didn’t mind if we didn’t. Not being keen to miss out, my wife and I hastily booked a couple of days off work along with flights to the US. Having been told that the ceremony was due to take place at 10am, we dragged our jet-lagged bodies out of bed at about 9.15am and went upstairs to find that no one else in the house was awake. 10am came and went and still there was no sign of anyone. It wasn’t until half an hour later that any of the in-laws – not to mention the bride and groom – put in an appearance. Still, when the wedding did eventually take place it was worth the wait and I cried throughout. That said, I have to confess that the main reason I was so certain my daughter hadn’t got married on the Friday as she was claiming was that it had coincided with the Saturday of the Champions League final, which I had watched on my own as everyone else had a nap before going out in the evening.
If, as many had previously said, Tory MPs were reserving their judgment on the prime minister’s decision not to sack Dominic Cummings until after his appearance before the liaison committee – the supergroup of select committee chairs – then I can only assume they were watching a different session to me. For only a handful more came out to say Dom should go. What I saw was a prime minister who was totally unprepared and out of his depth. Not just on the Cummings affair, about which his basic message was that he wasn’t bothered if his key adviser had broken the rules or not, it was just time to move on – something that will have come as a huge relief to the families of the 60,000 people who have likely died in the UK as a result of the coronavirus outbreak – but also on significant other areas of government policy, such as the benefits system. There again, it’s not just me who is having problems understanding why so many Tory MPs are standing by Boris and Dom when it is clear they believe there is one rule for the elite and another for the rest of us. A friend who lives in Jeremy Hunt’s constituency wrote to the former foreign secretary to ask how he reconciled his support. He replied that, as far he was concerned, Dom had broken the government guidelines on three separate occasions but he wasn’t going to make too much of a fuss about it. Presumably because he had a career to worry about. My friend wrote back, pointing out that this was bigger than party loyalty: if Dom could be seen to be getting away with it, then thousands of others would follow suit and the death toll would get even larger. Hunt replied once more saying he had said all he was going to say and it was time to move on for the good of the country. So it seems the country is expected to act on conscience and moral principles that are absent within government.
With the slight easing in lockdown measures – more, one suspects, out of Boris Johnson’s desire to move the story on from Cummings rather than a significant fall in the reproduction rate or the readiness of the new test-and-trace system – the rest of the summer begins to take on a more familiar feel. Sort of. Instead of the Euros, from 17 June the Premier League will resume behind closed doors. Obviously I’m pleased, but not as pleased as I thought I would be and I can’t work out if my lack of enthusiasm is because Spurs’ season had in effect ended before the lockdown anyway or if it’s because I’ve got used to there being no live sport. Either way, it’s likely to be a rather surreal experience with no supporters to create any atmosphere. Just before the lockdown I watched the Olympiakos v Wolves game that was played in an empty stadium in Athens and I can’t remember ever feeling so semi-detached during a football match. Even the players didn’t look that interested and appeared to be just going through the motions. To mitigate the deadening effect of no noise, there are rumours the Premier League is planning on piping in fake chants through stadium PA systems. If so, I very much look forward to hearing “the referee’s a wanker” when a blatant foul is missed and, my own personal favourites ‘Is there a fire drill?’ and ‘We can see you sneaking out’ that always come towards the end of a game when one set of fans knows their team have lost and leave early to avoid both the queues and having to hear rival fans rubbing their noses in it.
Another sign of things returning to something like normality is that the Proms are making hopeful noises about being able to put on some kind of much reduced programme. Assuming they are not just planning to broadcast highlights of previous years’ concerts, I can’t see quite how it’s going to work as to observe proper physical distancing rules – wind and brass players can spread a lot of spit over a large area – it sounds as if the orchestra will have to spread out over the whole of the Albert Hall. Which would not only make for weird acoustics but would not leave much room for an audience. Perhaps they are just going to do a whole season of string quartets. Rather more bizarrely, the Turner prize judges have already decided not to announce a winner this year and to give bursaries to those who made the shortlist instead. This just seems bonkers, given the judges have already seen the works and that they don’t need to be viewed by the public for a winner to be chosen. Still, there’s much about the Turner prize that I’ve never understood. Most notably why a ceramicist – Grayson Perry in 2003 – has only once won the prize. I can think of at least four potters who would have been more than worthy winners and none of them even made the short list. Britain is world famous for its studio potters and yet they consistently go unrecognised by the art world at home. It’s as if ceramics is considered to be lower in the cultural hierarchy: a craft rather than an art form. Allow me to disagree. The pots that I own – and those that I don’t – have brought me far more joy than any number of paintings and installations in Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Maybe something for next year’s Turner prize judges to consider.
Digested week, digested: Cummings but no goings.