Should Dominic Cummings resign? Hardly the best-loved individual in Britain, his conduct has been denounced as selfish by both the left and sections of the right, who are adamant he must go. Rather than jump to conclusions, it’s best to render a nuanced judgment based on how governments have responded in similar cases.
I argue in my book Whiteshift that public norms, which often carry enormous personal costs, should move from a political wrestling match over whether one side can move the herd in its direction to enforce taboos to a more regulated ‘normative jurisprudence’ model that takes a legal approach, considering precedent, similar cases, and appropriately calibrated punishments.
The aim here is to make a determination that takes into account competing values, and examines things from a ‘shades of grey’ rather than ‘black and white’ binary perspective. If someone shades over a line, they must resign. If they do something wrong but fall short of the line, they receive a lesser punishment, such as being demoted or having to publicly apologise. Decisions should consider extenuating circumstances and punishments short of sacking.
If we consider the range of similar infractions — by no means an exhaustive list, largely compiled by The Washington Post — then it would appear that the appropriate penalty is for Cummings to apologise but not resign. Resignations, such as those of Catherine Calderwood, Neil Ferguson and Don Harwin in New South Wales, are all linked to frivolous violations, notably travel for recreational purposes.
Extenuating circumstances, such as New Zealand Health Minister David Clark’s expertise and skills, which Jacinda Ardern claimed was vital in the decision not to sack him, are also taken into account in making decisions. Higher-ranking figures with larger portfolios are thereby less likely to step down. Ergo, prime ministers like Trudeau or opposition leaders like Scheer are unlikely to be forced out by their parties or the Commons. Had Boris defied lockdown, even for recreational purposes, it is unlikely he would resign.
Cummings may have had no choice, or he may have been able to find another solution to his childcare problem. His trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight is almost certainly not justifiable. In this instance, he should acknowledge that he could have tested his eyesight in a more considerate way.
However, the severity of the offence in Cummings’ case is mitigated by the fact it was not obviously recreational. He is also important to the government’s public mission, as Ardern noted of Clark in New Zealand.
We should be able to distinguish between various degrees of violation of norms, on the one hand, and sentencing, on the other. On the basis of these standards, and the precedent set to date in Anglo societies, he did wrong and should apologise but did not breach the threshold required for him to resign.
This said, if it should come to light that he lied about his motivations and actually left for recreational reasons, the appropriate penalty would be for him to resign.