“SALUS populi suprema lex esto”, as Tully put it in his snappy way in De Legibus Book III. Usually, when we say something is Ciceronian, we mean that it’s long-winded, convoluted and involves antithesis, but this line – surely one of his greatest hits – is a reminder that the extraordinary concision of Latin allows you to get a lot of ideas into fewer than half a dozen words.

The notion that public health is the greatest law has particular resonance at the moment, naturally, when our usual rights and liberties have been suspended, ostensibly for that purpose. There’s also the amplification of the sentiment, originally voiced by Nigel Lawson, that the NHS is the closest thing the British (he said English) have to a religion. It’s at the very least a fetish or a cult, judging by its Thursday-evening saucepan-banging adherents.

The most interesting implication of Cicero’s maxim, though, is the idea that any law can be superseded by the greatest law, which is what’s best for the public. To which the obvious riposte, which he also came up with, is “cui bono?” (for whose benefit?), or perhaps Juvenal’s question “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (which amounts to “says who?” or “I don’t trust any of those buggers”).

The case of Dominic Cummings is an example of this central question of jurisprudence: the extent to which any law depends upon, and derives its authority from, public consent. Mr Cummings must currently be the UK’s most unpopular person. Previously, he has given the impression that he rather enjoyed that label, since he was unpopular with people who blamed him for Brexit.

In that instance, he could (just on the numbers, which are the only thing that matters in the end) turn round and say “Yah, boo, sucks to be you”, since he won. He could also say that he was on the side of the people – because more of them voted his way – and against the elites.

Indeed, one of the fascinating things about Mr Cummings is the way in which he seems simultaneously to have a sort of second sight about the way the majority of the public views the establishment (which he loathes), and a spectacularly cavalier contempt for populism and popular opinion – he also loathes, and is loathed by, Brexit hardliners such as Nigel Farage, as well as an awful lot of Conservatives, since he isn’t one himself.

In the normal course of events, the almost demented hatred Mr Cummings seems to revel in provoking from his opponents would be quite a good argument for keeping him in post. Especially since, however much you disapprove of his actions, intending to look after your child’s welfare ought to be a more attractive look than lining up in the street to hurl abuse at him.

But, even though I think you could present a case that he technically followed the rules, or that he made a minor and forgivable error of judgment, I can’t for the life of me see why the Government is attempting to do so. Just as a political calculation, there is absolutely no upside to this, surely doomed, defence of the PM’s senior adviser.

The Government has recently obtained a huge majority. The Prime Minister has nearly died of the disease that is the country’s only issue. The Chancellor – a Conservative Chancellor – is basically promising to give everyone as much money as they need. Though support has drifted, the general consensus until a few days ago was that, though they’d made plenty of mistakes, the ruling party was doing its best to get us through this.

And all of that political capital has just evaporated in attempting to keep Mr Cummings in his job. Which was, in the first place, a pointless exercise. As he will know, better than anyone else, it is the ultimate fate of all people with his kind of role in politics to be thrown under the bus sooner or later. In fact, it happened to him before, when he was the special adviser at the Education department and was fired by David Cameron. The trick is to see the bus coming, and to bow to the inevitable before you’ve done too much damage to the rest of the project.

The “suprema lex” is not, as the Prime Minister was attempting to portray it in that car crash of a press conference, what was actually right or wrong, or what the specific rules said (and let’s face it, if Mr Cummings is known for anything, it’s for being a natural rule-breaker). Detailed refutation of the claims, with plenty of chapter and verse, would have been the only way to do that, and was conspicuously absent.

But even if one could mount such a defence, why would you? It doesn’t matter whether Mr Cummings did what anyone might have done, or even if he was technically within the rules. What matters is the “populi” bit of the quotation. There are literally tens of thousands of people who were unable to see relatives before they died, or attend their funerals, who have lost their jobs, who have had to look after children while unwell, who have undergone all sorts of extraordinary privations and who think Mr Cummings has behaved in a way they were not allowed to.

In the face of this reality, it doesn’t matter a damn whether they’re right or not. What matters is that this sentiment, which in a good many cases amounts to incandescent rage, is not confined to people who already hated Mr Cummings or the Government. It’s pretty well universal.

That is not just catastrophically bad news for the political position of the Tory Party. It also makes it more or less impossible to maintain the restrictions which – and again, it doesn’t matter whether you think they’re right or not – we are told are still necessary. If the populace thinks that the laws can be interpreted with a fair degree of licence, they will do so. If the rules are supposed to be strict, but don’t apply to everyone, people will ask: why not? Above all else, I can’t see why, even if you were Dominic Cummings’ greatest fan, you wouldn’t conclude that he’s currently a liability.

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