There has been much speculation about whether Dominic Cummings’ lockdown travels represent a turning point for the government or whether this is just another ‘Westminster bubble’ affair. Our latest polling shows that, for a political story of its kind, the cut-through among the public has been unprecedented.

Populus asks the country each week to name – without prompting – the news story to which they have paid most attention. This week, 52% referred specifically to Cummings and his drive north, the first time in months that the coronavirus itself has been knocked off the top spot.

This is an extraordinary level of penetration. Past scandals involving the lives of political figures, many ending with resignation, did not come close. Controversies pertaining to cabinet ministers and prime ministers have failed to register to the same scale.

The degree of interest has clearly been helped by blanket media coverage, but nevertheless the share of attention paid to the Durham trip (52%) is great than that paid to many a major story, including Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding (45%, 2018), the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis (45%, 2017) and the Panama Papers (35%, 2016)

Why is this one different? First, almost everyone – including people who don’t usually follow the news – has been gripped by pandemic developments. We are all paying such close attention that any apparent liberties taken by high profile businesses or people are going to generate far more interest and opinion than usual.

Second, the lockdown is affecting everybody’s normal lives, making this story qualitatively different to most others involving the private affairs of political figures. Everyone has skin in the game, and we have all had to make our own decisions and sacrifices in interpreting the rules.

It is difficult to predict the long-term impact on the fortunes of the government. This could mark a defining moment if it becomes part of a broader narrative that speaks to the Conservative party’s traditional brand weaknesses, undermining its image among first-time Conservative voters in traditional Labour heartlands. Or it simply could have hastened the inevitable unwinding of the government’s post-election, pandemic honeymoon.

But if there ever was a personal scandal that had the potential to stick in the back of voters’ minds and change the course of the narrative, this would be it.

Populus interviews a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asks what news story they have noticed the most. The question is open-ended and participants can name any story.

Will Clothier is a Senior Consultant at Populus


Will Clothier

Will is a Senior Consultant at Populus, where he advises corporate and public sector clients on their reputation strategies with key audiences. He leads projects analysing the views of the public, key demographic groups, and senior stakeholders. He works with charities, political organisations, and household names across a range of sectors.