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Artillery Row

Defending a sticky wicket

Supporting Dom Cummings, Grant Shapps is the Boycott of press conference performers

Saturday’s Downing Street coronavirus briefing was all about transport. Of course it was. And for the first ten minutes – the length of time Grant Shapps, the secretary of state for transport, took to deliver his opening remarks – trains and trams, and buses were indeed the priority. Gamely, Shapps announced £283 million to help public transport return to a full timetable, 490 engineering projects taking place over this bank holiday weekend and that some railway lines axed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s are to reopen. He broke this good news gamely in the sense that he knew he was wasting his breath. The only transport story the waiting journalists were about to interrogate him on was the car journey in March that Dominic Cummings took with his wife and child from London to Co Durham.

Shapps delivered, off-pat, the lines to take. After all, his colleagues had been rehearsing them on twitter throughout the day. Indeed, rarely has this cabinet better resembled a close harmony group than in the statements released – entirely independently – by ministers on Saturday. In these variations on a theme by the Downing Street press office, they all conveyed the important message that it ain’t no crime to do what’s right for your child (it was just unfortunate that the guidelines at the time had used less clear terminology). What some unkind souls depicted as a flagrant breach of the lockdown rules, the Downing Street Singers crooned was a mercy mission.

Given what an unflattering picture of his credentials as a human being hostile journalists and political opponents paint of Dominic Cummings, this glimpse of the dedicated family-man forsaking Whitehall for the love of his child is one of the most touching tales we have yet heard about him. What cruel irony should it prove the last.

Before the pace attack was summoned to catch Shapps LBW in front of this stickiest of wickets, the ball was briefly tossed to Gordon from Gosport and Sarah from Newbury. The two members of the public selected to ask questions wanted to know about the quarantining rules for travel between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and whether Covid-19 testing for the under-fives was possible. Well, that’s what you get if you let amateurs on to the field of play.

For the professionals, today (and hopefully tomorrow and the next day) was all about trapping Shapps into surrendering Cummings. Shapps could have swung the bat majestically by announcing free helicopters for every adult over the age of twenty-five or the abolition of the country’s entire fleet of buses without risk of an appeal to the umpire. He could have got away with anything so long as his bat did not guard the middle-wicket marked “Cummings.”

The honour fell to the BBC’s Iain Watson to bowl the first ball. “Did the prime minister know that his adviser, Dominic Cummings, drove 250 miles or more during lockdown?” Watson wanted to know, “and did he approve this?” Shapps stood his ground, “You’re asking whether the prime minister knew? Look, the important thing is that everyone remains in the same place whilst they are locked-down. Which is exactly what happened, I think, in the case you are referring to with Mr Cummings. So the prime minister will have known that he was staying put and didn’t come out again until he was feeling better.” This did not exactly answer whether the prime minister knew that staying put involved travelling 250 miles. Dot ball.

“You’re asking whether the prime minister knew? Look, the important thing is …

Next up to bowl from the media box end, Sam Coates, Sky’s deputy political editor, wondered if Shapps knew for certain that Cummings could not have infected anyone on his road-trip and what would be his message to those who weren’t able to say goodbye to loved ones or attend funerals because “they were observing the letter of the rules?”

Shapps ignored what road-trip contagion the Cummings family had risked, but empathised with those who had lost their loved ones and done the right thing and “the reality of the matter is a four-year-old child’s welfare I think is the important thing. Parents would ask themselves what they would do if they had no other support around?” In the Cummings family’s case it meant staying close to where a sibling could deliver food to the doorstep.

An incredulous Coates wondered if the Cummings family really had no one in London who could drop supplies at the foot of their town house. We shall perhaps never know the answer, but friends of the prime minister’s adviser and his wife must be searching their souls.

The Sun on Sunday wanted to know, is it “one rule for us and one rule for the rest of them.” ITV tried to probe on the latitude within the guidance. The deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jennie Harries, dealt with successive questions that tried tease out whether her previous references to exceptions where safeguarding of the vulnerable took precedence over a narrow reading of the guidelines applied in this particular case. But she said she was not sufficiently versed on the detail of this particular case.

It fell to the Daily Telegraph’s Chris “Chopper” Hope to return Shapps to the backfoot by repeating Watson’s earlier line and length about when the prime minister knew his adviser was isolating in Durham rather than in London. “I don’t know exactly when the prime minister knew, but he knew that he was unwell and locked down. The PM was also unwell in the same period”Shapps responded. At which point he courageously advanced down the wicket to anticipate the next ball with, “it’s perfectly right that questions are asked and you’re all asking the same questions and not, I appreciate, about the significant transport announcements” and then came the point of contact between bat and ball, “the upgrading of the A66 to dual carriageway and the billion pounds to make people’s lives better and faster to connect there and I do appreciate that.”

Phew. Stroke play worthy of Geoff Boycott in his prime. And, after all, it was time for some perspective. Political advisers come and go. But the A66 dual carriageway will be yours and mine to enjoy for decades to come.

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