If a magic genie visited me in the night, my first wish would be to hear the excuses Number Ten rejected for Dominic Cummings before landing on “I drove to Barnard Castle with my wife and small child to test whether I’d lost my eyesight.”
If Armando Iannucci had been writing this incident as a sketch from The Thick Of It, I wouldn’t be surprised if it would have been dropped for being too far-fetched. The image of Michael Gove being forced on national television to state that, yes, he too would test his eyesight by conducting a sixty-mile round-trip to a local beauty spot will be hard to shake from the public conscience. Do the MPs defending Cummings realise how ludicrous they sound to the general public? Do they wonder what they did wrong in a past life to wind up on daytime TV insisting that Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle during lockdown – on his wife’s birthday, coincidentally – was entirely fine and a fair substitute for an ophthalmology exam?
Do the MPs defending Cummings see what we see? Unlike many political crises, this has burst the political bubble and reached the usually apathetic. Recent YouGov polling shows 52% of Britons want Cummings gone. Backbench MPs claim their inboxes have been inundated with complaints from the general public about Johnson’s handling of the crisis.
They have plenty reasons to be upset. What is now farce was, only a few days ago, more like tragedy. As with so many political incidents, it isn’t the incident that has caused the damage: it’s the aftermath or the cover-up. Some people, whether they are cosy with Boris Johnson or not, will have subverted the lockdown laws. We can’t deny that fact. But some supporters of Boris Johnson cite the treatment (or more, lack) of Stephen Kinnock when he visited a parent as justification for the Prime Minister’s inaction on Dominic Cummings. This misses the point: while all people flouting the lockdown laws should be held to account, Stephen Kinnock wasn’t supported publicly by the Prime Minister. Nor did the attorney general seemingly relax the rules retrospectively to support him. It isn’t Cummings’ actions that really matter: it’s Number Ten’s refusal to fire him.
Cummings has the air of someone who has never been told “no.” And, crucially, the rest of us can tell. As so often happens with privilege, he lacks self-awareness: in his mind, he appears perfectly at ease with the idea that he was facing difficult circumstances – and so did what was necessary to protect his own. Fair enough, one might think. But what he does not appreciate is that so many across the country endured similar hardships, faced the same dilemmas, even worse ones – only they stayed at home. Cummings’ disregard for the spirit of the lockdown measures leaves a deeply personal, even emotional, pang in all those who abided by the law. Countless families missed birthdays, births, deaths and funerals, in an attempt to fight for the good of our curious little island. Now those efforts have been thrown back in our faces. And if Cummings was only doing what any loving father would do, as the Prime Minister seems to think, this denounces all loving fathers who abided by the rules as not loving their families quite enough.
It’s hard to escape the thought that Johnson and his cabinet take the rest of us for fools. While the country did exactly what it was told, those with the privilege of knowing the Prime Minister did as they pleased, knowing they would face no consequences for their actions.
There is light ahead. There has been something beautifully climactic about the last few days. It reminds me of fables told to children to teach them basic moral lessons before they reach maturity. In this particular fable, two of the most powerful men in the country are discovering what happens when you base an electoral campaign on populism, then decide to subvert the will of the majority. The two men, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, forged their careers and reached power based on their claims to some deep-seated connection with the public mood. They have spent the best part of four years denouncing anyone who stood against them as saboteurs, and betrayers of the will of the well-meaning majority.
The spin Johnson and the Conservatives employed after the Brexit referendum painted themselves as the head of a people’s movement – one which will fight for the ordinary, the grassroots and the downtrodden, against a liberal elite trying to subvert the referendum result. There was always a catch. This kind of rhetoric necessarily divides the country into “the people” and everyone else – and I can’t imagine the Prime Minister is so naive he does not know this. Now the British public is discovering that “the people” are not afforded the advantages of an elite Johnson himself has forged.
The irony is plain. One does wonder whether Johnson’s politics for the last four years have been one massive act of projection – that he accuses his political opponents of everything of which he himself is guilty. A movement that has spent many years bemoaning unelected bureaucrats now sees an unelected bureaucrat hold a press conference in the Number Ten rose garden (which, it would seem, is an interesting interpretation of the rules for special advisors). A man who claims to defend the majority opinion is now refusing to fire someone 52% of the British public want gone. Most crucially, this man implies through his actions that rule of law does not extend to every person equally.
On Twitter yesterday, I saw a comment that had me pondering about how this scandal will end. When you have the Church of England, the police, and the Daily Mail against you, it’s probably time to review your decision. At the time of writing, one junior minister has resigned from the cabinet in protest, so this scandal isn’t going away in the way Number Ten had likely hoped. But the true test of this scandal’s significance will be if there is a second COVID-19 wave. If the Prime Minister instigates a second round of intense lockdown measures, will the general public abide by them? Or has he lost that moral and political authority?
It’s too early to tell. But while The Thick Of It never went as far as creating a scandal like this, one thing is sure: this situation is nothing but an omnishambles.