The article that appeared in the Spectator at the end of April painted a picture of a family in turmoil during a pandemic, with a wife describing the anguish of watching as her husband “lay doggo” with Covid-19 for 10 days before they emerged from quarantine “into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown”.
The column by the magazine’s commissioning editor, Mary Wakefield, about life with her husband, Dominic Cummings, was classic material for the high-Tory magazine: confessional and full of personal details about individuals at the top of British politics, earning the interest of Radio 4’s Today programme, which asked her to read out key details.
Never mind that the couple originally emerged from self-isolation in Durham, where they’d travelled during lockdown. And that they had made a 60-mile round trip to a beauty spot to check Cummings’ eyesight, too – both points that were absent from the article.
The Spectator, owned by the warring Barclay brothers, is at the centre of a web connecting Cummings, Wakefield – and the prime minister himself.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ipso, the press regulator which covers the Spectator, told the Guardian it had received two complaints from members of the public about potential factual inaccuracies in the 1,000-word column by Wakefield, which will mean the magazine will have to justify the article and could result in it being required to publish a correction.
In the process, the Spectator has found itself at the centre of yet another scandal at the heart of Conservative politics. Despite its relatively niche status – its 80,000 print and digital subscribers make it a financial success but give it a limited readership in the scale of modern media – its influence and connections to the current government and wider media world are substantial.
Wakefield herself is a fixture of the magazine, having first written for it two decades ago when, just after university, she won a travel writing prize. The editor at the time – and one of the judges – was an up-and-coming journalist and would-be Tory MP called Boris Johnson, who was already setting about making the magazine a byword for Westminster intrigue with his colourful love life and public apologies during an era which saw the magazine dubbed the “Sextator” for his and others’ antics.
The daughter of a baronet, Wakefield grew up at Chillingham Castle – a large country house deep in the Northumberland countryside, an hour’s drive north of Newcastle. Her father, formerly employed by the auction house Christie’s, took possession of the property in the early 1980s and painstakingly restored it after it had been derelict for 50 years. The house is so grand that it was used as the set for key scenes in the 1997 film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.
After rising quickly up the Spectator’s ranks to become deputy editor, Wakefield has remained a core part of the Spectator team, albeit with a limited public profile. One former colleague praised her editing skills and suggested she had a different political approach to her husband, describing her as a “compassionate conservative” who is less involved in aggressive day-to-day politics than the journalistic partners of other leading politicians. “She isn’t Sarah Vine [wife of Michael Gove, and a Daily Mail columnist] … she’s just his wife, she loves him, she’s got her own thing, they’re very different,” the former colleague said.
Wakefield, 45, has so far worked under three editors and stayed on when the current boss, Fraser Nelson, was appointed in 2010, despite herself being viewed as a potential candidate for the top job. “I think in a different world she might have been the first female editor of the Spectator,” said the former colleague.
Her career as a journalist at a politics-heavy magazine is perhaps ironic, given her husband’s public insistence that he thinks little of the profession and political reporters in particular.
However, biographies of Cummings often overlook his brief journalism career at the Spectator. In 2006 the future prime ministerial aide left his position as the magazine’s online boss after he briefly published a cartoon on the Spectator’s website of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, following the lead of a Danish newspaper which had prompted an international row about the limits of free speech.
“I didn’t think it was a wise thing,” said the then acting editor Stuart Reid.
In another sign of the magazine’s role at the centre of a web of political connections, his departure was ultimately overseen by the Spectator chairman, Andrew Neil, who continues to hold the role at the Barclay Brothers-owned magazine in addition to his job as a BBC political interviewer.
When Cummings was contacted by the Guardian in 2006 to clarify his role at the Spectator and the decision to publish the drawing, he said: “I have zero comment.” Fourteen years later, No 10 gave similar responses on his behalf to requests for comment from Guardian reporters on whether he had travelled to Durham during lockdown in late March.
Wakefield has so far remained silent on the apparent lockdown breach, other than favouriting a number of supportive tweets suggesting the media were exaggerating the importance of the incident. A spokesperson for the Spectator, which has carried comment pieces arguing that Cummings must be sacked, said: “We are happy to let our coverage speak for itself.”
One of the unanswered questions about the incident is why Cummings felt the need to check his eyesight by driving to Barnard Castle, rather than ask his wife to take the wheel on the long drive down the A1 back to London. Wakefield herself is known to have driven: the award-winning travel writing piece that helped her get the Spectator job describes her driving across Texas.