Monday, 25 May 2020

All the damage they can do

This blog doesn’t think much of Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings (above). You may have noticed. Way back in 2016, we called Johnson ‘a poor man's Silvio Berlusconi, endlessly replaying his own triumphs and legends back to himself’, and invited readers to boot him back into ‘the dustbin of history’. Hey, take our advice, don’t take our advice. It’s up to you.

As for Cummings, well. In February we labelled him a ‘one-dimensional… symptom of a much, much deeper rot – the gangrene that tells you where the worst of the wounds reside’. Never let it be said that we’re behind the curve here.

Together, the two of them give full rein to the worst id of the toddler’s instincts. I am strong. I can do as I like. You are nothing. You are stupid. I am powerful. Now you see where that gets them, you and everyone else – starring and crowd roles in a dark tragi-comedy that couldn’t be bettered if several skeletons and several lovers fell out of several wardrobes on several stages. All at once.

Cummings’ lockdown adventures in his native North of England are now a thing of record (if not of beauty). Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe his story (which doesn’t seem all that much less believable than lots of other things in British politics these days). His wife was sick. His son got sick. He was probably very scared. He wondered what on Earth to do. That’s fine, and understandable.

He took himself off to a site on his father’s property. He isolated. He didn’t see anyone else. Now, that’s pretty much a violation of the spirit of England’s lockdown rules at the time, and maybe, probably, of its letter as well. He still knowingly took the virus to a new chunk of the country, outside the capital that was its hotspot at the time. He still could have introduced it into the hospital his son ended up in (though he eventually tested negative).

It was a reckless, stupid thing to do. And Cummings should at least have given thought to how it would all look. Granted, no doubt he was frightened for his family. He knew where to find a bolthole. Maybe you’d have done the same. Maybe you wouldn’t. It was human error, of a type that perhaps the overconfident Cummings thinks he can build systems to guard against, though one - we should note - about which he has shown very little contrition.

Then he went out again. In a car. With his son in it. To test his eyesight. Yes, really. Now here’s where things get even more difficult. Quite frankly, that’s such a bizarre and Fawlty Towers-style detail that, like a ‘hard saying’ in Biblical studies, it probably did break down like that. But it was another stupid, foolhardy, rash and dangerous thing to do. We’re starting to maybe, sort-of, wonder about Cummings’ judgement. Are you?

There are a further series of dark undertones to consider. The first, and right now the least: the implications for Cabinet – and indeed all ordered – government. Can you imagine how the Health Secretary (and previously-designated fallguy) Matt Hancock feels about all this? Perhaps he's a bit angry. And the civil servants, at least one of whom let their true feelings out on Twitter when Johnson first came out to defend his man?

Governments must stick together, work together, speak together – and elected politicians, rather than a rather absurd but always-on angry Svengali, should in the last analysis make decisions. That’s how the chain of responsibility should work, and must work if the House of Commons – and by extension the voters – are to exert any influence at all.

And then there’s the immediate consequences on the ground. Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, although its immediate threat to life has abated. Spikes and flareups are happening all the time, and this government might have to order another full lockdown if things get out of control in the autumn. We don’t rate Boris Johnson. You probably don’t. But like it or not, he’s the only leader we’re going to get for some time to come. At this moment above all, we all need him to succeed - and to do that, people have to trust him, follow his advice, put some faith in him. Cummings just blew up loads of his credibility. That matters. Right now that matters a great deal.

The fight against Covid-19 has been put back by Cummings’ ridiculous odyssey, and then put back much more by his pallid semi-apology and thin attempts to brazen things out. The British public have to this point stuck at the very difficult changes to everyday life that they have been asked to bear. But consent comes from the ‘bottom’, allied to co-operation and contract from the ‘top’ (or what passes for the top these days). Take a hammer to that sense of community – to honesty, believability, transparency – and you are gambling with the whole edifice of compliance.

We can leave you with no more wisdom than that of that much-missed (and vastly-underestimated) political fighter, Jim Callaghan. During the 1979 General Election campaign, Jim was savvy enough to feel the sea-change around him. As he admitted to his driver at one point, sometimes politics is just buckled and transformed, and there’s nothing you can do. That change of feeling, he detected, was for Margaret Thatcher, and he was right.

It’s possible to imagine – though this might turn out completely wrong – that we are at a similar inflection point now. What do the Conservatives’ new voters really, really hate? Unfairness. The people ‘at the top’ – dare we say, the ‘elites’ – getting away with it. Well, this is them getting away with it redux. Had Cummings been, ooh, let’s say a dispensable scientist on an advisory body, he would have been out of a job. But because of who he is, he isn’t. It’s as simple as that.

After Labour’s betrayal of national security and Britain’s interests after the Russian chemical weapons attack on Salisbury – when they basically read out a Kremlin press release in response – something palpably and definitively changed about voters’ estimates of them. Are we at another one of those moments now? Could this be another of those periodic electoral shocks that change the landscape? It fees like it could be.

One of Callaghan’s other famous quotes came to him as he looked in the mirror one morning. Dragging Britain through yet another crisis, even this famously patriotic (and ex-navy) leader lost a bit of heart. ‘If I were a young man, I would emigrate’, he thought. If you take a quick look at the emigration figures, lots and lots of people felt the same.

It was hard, looking at that sunny Downing Street garden full of press waiting for Cummings, not to feel something of Callaghan’s ennui. While medics in visors and goggles literally battled to save people’s lives, the mind of the British state, its core executive, its policy-making community, its lobby journalists, was not on the crisis at all – but on one silly man and one stupid trip. It was pathetic, it was ridiculous, and it was embarrassing.

Lots of people looking at Johnson and Cummings right now can turn and look in the mirror too. And then they can turn again, and see the enormous strides that the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have made against the virus. Many of them are young. Some of them are probably pretty restless. Perhaps they should, and maybe they will, start to consider Callaghan’s challenge.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only four more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones...