Boris Johnson is a populist who no longer understands the populace. Dominic Cummings pretends to be an anti-elitist but cannot see how lethal the slogan ‘one rule for me and another for everyone else’ is to him and the elite he serves. Their government and the Vote Leave movement it grew from once had a crass genius for simple slogans that cut through – £350 million for the NHS, Get Brexit Done, Stay at Home.
Boris Johnson’s slogan was Cummings ‘acted responsibly, legally and with integrity’ when he packed up his family, drove 250 miles, stayed near parents and siblings and, according to a witness, went off on family walks.
The message has certainly ‘cut through’ but not in the way Johnson intended. For it turns out that to say there is ‘one rule for the elite and another for the masses’ isn’t the half of it. Johnson retrospectively rewrites the rules to protect the elite.
He does not understand what the country is going through, or if he does, he does not care. Millions have been unable to visit and help elderly parents. Thousands have known that a parent died alone. Weddings have been postponed. Teenagers have had to cancel their rites of passage into adulthood. Lovers have been parted. The loss of the warmth of human contact has been a national and global experience. One must feel sympathy for Cummings and his family, but mothers and fathers everywhere have asked what they would do if they both came down with the virus and did not think they would be acting ‘legally’ if they behaved as Cummings behaved, let alone ‘responsibly and with integrity’. No one told us we could until the government’s twisters got to work on a line buried in the official guidelines that ‘reasonable excuses’ to leave home included providing ‘personal care…to a vulnerable person’.
If this exemption covered the Cummings' case, and it's far from clear it did, why did his wife Mary Wakefield not say in her Spectator piece on living with coronavirus that she and her husband had fled plague-ridden London? Guardian and Mirror reporters began asking questions of government spokesmen and women on 5 April. Downing Street did not reply, ‘sure, Dom’s shown his responsibility and integrity by moving to Durham as he has every legal right to do. What of it? Where’s the story?’ They said ‘It will be a no comment on that one’.
In normal circumstances, any decent opponent of this government would not want to bring a parent’s concern for their child into a debate. But the personal is political today and the aristocratic notion that the pain of members of the elite is more real than the pain of everyone else, that their worries are greater and more worthy of sympathy has infuriated the country. At the weekend, the Marie Antoinettes of the cabinet did not realise how their words would be read when they tweeted their support for Cummings in unison. ‘Caring for your wife and child is not a crime,’ said Michael Gove as if all of us who have sacrificed contact with our families did not care enough.
The sacrifices were made because of draconian laws Gove himself imposed, and I do not want to underestimate the importance of coercion. But when the power of the state is acknowledged, you must also accept that many went along with the restrictions freely because they thought they were protecting the National Health Service and wider society. We have lived through a moment of national solidarity that conservatives who still support the government want to turn into a culture war to save Cummings’ career.
The calls for him to go come from ‘longstanding critics of Boris Johnson among opposition parties and the press,’ says a cloth-eared Times on Monday. Most of the people complaining are thwarted Remainers ‘who would say that, wouldn’t they?’ opined a Telegraph pundit on Saturday. This is partisan wishful thinking at its most self-serving and stupid, and not only because the Daily Mail and elderly Tories who cannot see their children and grandchildren are among the angriest critics of all.
People of all political persuasions have looked on what they thought was a national government leading us through an emergency and seen a self-interested faction, more concerned in contriving lawyerly excuses for the privileged than protecting the rest of the population.
If the failure to lock down fast enough to save thousands of lives did not make the dangers of having a cabinet of yes men clear, I suspect the events of the last few days have done so. Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesman, talks to me in frank disbelief about how Matt Hancock has given up without even making a pretence of putting up a fight for his department. Hancock has seen Cummings undermine his own health advice. Hancock must know the danger of the voters saying that, if the powerful can go off and do as they please, the powerless are free to do the same. As health secretary he also has a clear duty to maintain the morale of health workers, and to stop them asking why the hell they are bothering turning up for work.
Yet rather than speak out, all the servile Hancock could say in public was that it was ‘entirely right’ for Cummings to drive from London to Durham. This isn’t loyalty. This is obsequiousness that borders on the masochistic.
Only a few weeks ago, ‘Downing Street sources,’ who like Lord Voldemort must not be named, were lining up Hancock as Johnson’s fall guy. ‘Hancock's not had a good crisis,’ they told the Telegraph. ‘The Prime Minister will say he has confidence in him, but it doesn't feel like that.’
Now that he who must not be named has been named – and exposed – Hancock ignores his responsibility to protect the health of the nation and falls over himself to protect Cummings.
The most dismaying servility, however, comes from Johnson himself. He had a 59 cent approval rating when he left hospital in April. He had the authority to lead but now we know that he does not have the capacity. He is too insecure, too dependent on an inner circle of advisers, and too frightened of the competition to place capable women and men in his cabinet.
He prefers loyalty to his friend to loyalty to his country, and he will pay for that. We are already in a terrible recession, even if many furloughed workers do not realise it yet. The virus may be dying down, but there are no guarantees that it will not come back. There may be a vaccine one day or maybe not. No one knows. Perhaps Johnson will demand Cummings resigns. He ought to because a prime minister leading in a crisis needs the authority to persuade the public to listen to him and trust him. And if he cannot, he needs to step aside and make way for someone who can.