Cummings roadtrip didn’t need to become the only story in town

By Giles Croot, Managing Partner

How did the Government machine so spectacularly fail to manage the story about Dominic Cummings trip to Durham?  It’s said that “a lie is half way around the world before the truth has got its shoes on”… but in this case the “truth” – or to be more accurate Dominic Cummings explanation – spent longer looking for its shoes than it would have taken to walk from Westminster to the top of Durham Cathedral.

As a result, a story which would have been difficult at the best of times gained momentum, dominated the news for the whole weekend, undermined the credibility of the Prime Minister, caused a minister to resign and, even now, could result in Mr Cummings’ departure from Government.

In many ways, running a government is like running a business.  Most of what you do ticks along, largely unnoticed and certainly unremarkable most of the time.

However, there are times you want to force change, begin something new, fix a problem or you are forced to respond to events.  Making the right call in these situations is where execs earn their money.  And where reputations are won and lost.

Governments tend to be experts at dealing with events.  They have plenty of practice and a level of scrutiny, political and media, which businesses generally escape.  

Yet this weekend we watched as the Government allowed the row about Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham to become one of the defining issues of the Mr Johnson’s short premiership with, for the first couple of days, hardly any attempt to make a case for the defence.

When Benjamin Disraeli first coined the phrase “never complain, never explain” (or even when Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill adopted it) newspapers were not online, there was no social media and complex personal circumstances would be discussed in the privacy of a fireside chat with editors, ensuring that many personal indiscretions never saw the light of day – or if they did stories could be quickly closed down.  No longer the case.

Add into the mix the personal mythology and political backstory of the key protagonists and this was always a story which, in the absence of a defence was going to grow.

Each of us will have a view as to the culpability of Mr Cummings and whether his explanation justified his actions.  Whether he was right to do what he did, or not, is a debate for another article and not something I’ll be addressing here.  However, I’m in little doubt that had he made his case on Saturday morning the damage to the Government’s reputation amongst Brexit supporting, Conservative voters would have been considerably reduced.

So, was the Number 10 media machine asleep at the wheel (or simply testing their eyesight)?  According to the Sunday newspapers Mr Cummings took the decision to handle the situation himself.  Judging by the responses both the Transport Secretary and the Education Secretary gave when they were cross examined by the media (and both had to reveal they had not spoken to Mr Cummings), this seems likely to be true.  It was also the first mistake in handling the situation.

He would have done well to remember that you cannot advise yourself.

Next up, the source of the story.  Depending on your perspective the Guardian has, in the great tradition of UK journalism, been a campaigning force to shine a spotlight on Mr Cummings’ activities – or pursued a vendetta because he successfully identified and mobilised the UK’s Brexit zeitgeist.

This may well have led to an underestimate from Mr Cummings about the seriousness of the allegations – and the likelihood that it would be picked up beyond the Westminster bubble and left-leaning Tweeters.  You see this reaction happen from time to time.  

For example, when the Mail on Sunday ran a story about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand leaving a lewd answerphone message for Andrew Sachs about the actor’s granddaughter, the BBC would have regarded it as another in a long line of anti-BBC stories in that paper.  As a result, they pretty much ignored the situation – which could have been defused by a short apology on the day – allowing the storm to build, eventually sweeping Messers Ross, Brand and the controller of Radio 2 out of the corporation on the back of criticism from the Prime Minister and a £150,000 fine from their regulator.

Of course, it may be that Mr Cummings felt his defence was less than ideal – and therefore hoped that by briefing key journalists “off the record” he could reduce the level of scrutiny.  He may have (misguidedly) believed that his course of action would reduce – rather the increase – the attention that his actions received.

Ultimately, this is a powerful reminder that no matter how good you are, when it comes to dealing with your own situation you cannot anticipate how things look to other people.  Experienced business leaders know the value of challenge from advisors – ideally people with varying perspectives, even if they don’t always welcome it at the time.  But it’s better to hear the bad news in private than to read about it in the media after the event.

Business is rarely under the level of prolonged, intense scrutiny that politicians face – and whilst he is not elected Mr Cummings is, without doubt, political and views of him exceptionally divisive.  

However, the lessons from this debacle on how to protect an executive or a business reputation stand.  Firstly, don’t refuse to deal with an issue just because you don’t like the messenger.  You might not be able to stand a particular journalist or publication – but your staff, customers, political stakeholders may not share your scepticism.  They’ve certainly not been following the musings of said journalist with the degree of intensity or critical analysis that you do, so may not share your incredulity on the source.  Secondly, take advice – ideally from people who don’t always think in the same way and consider how the story could develop if (or when) more information comes out.  Are there any more skeletons – or things which could be made to look like them.  

Then, importantly, it’s almost always going to be better to make your defence quickly, even if it’s imperfect.  As Mr Cummings continues to discover the longer you leave it to make your case, the more people will have made up their minds based on the other side of the debate.