Brendan O’Neill

What’s more disturbing: Cummings’ behaviour - or the mob pursuing him?

What's more disturbing: Cummings' behaviour - or the mob pursuing him?
Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
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The Dominic Cummings story is deeply disturbing. No, not the fact that Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, took what they considered to be essential steps to ensure the welfare of their young child, but the fury and the bile that have been heaped upon them for doing so.

It really is something. For the entire weekend the media and the Twitterati have been raging against two parents who were ill, or at risk of falling ill, and who did what they thought was best for their kid in this situation: drove from London to Durham so that family members could assist with childcare if necessary.

Parents taking measures to protect their child is perfectly normal. What isn't normal, and in fact raises serious questions about the media's moral compass, is the depiction of such parents as reckless and uncaring. I can't be the only person watching this story unfold and finding myself far more disgusted by the invective being hurled at a mother and father than by the fact that the mother and father drove to Durham in a pandemic.

Did they break the lockdown? Possibly. Probably, I would say. At yesterday's press briefing Grant Shapps and Dr Jenny Harries made valiant efforts to present the Cummings trek as being in keeping with the caveats to the lockdown guidelines. (This led them to say something else too, something that people like me have been waiting a long time to hear: that people should exercise common sense when it comes to adhering to the lockdown. Yes!)

But surely the more important point is that if Cummings and Wakefield did break the lockdown, they didn't do so to attend a rave. Or to cough all over unsuspecting shoppers. Or to take part in a mad 5G protest. They broke it because they were worried about their kid. And when they completed their sinful journey to Durham, they self-isolated in a property separate from where Mr Cummings' parents live and they had shopping left at their front door. It's hardly Watergate, is it?

The New European website promoting the trolling of Dominic Cummings at his house

This morning there are fresh newspaper claims that Cummings made a second trip to Durham. But Cummings says this story is 'totally false' and Grant Shapps says it is 'completely untrue'. If that turns out to be the case, then the Sunday Mirror and the Observer will have far more serious questions to answer than Mr Cummings does. Let's see.

The Durham trip that we know for a fact happened is very different to what Neil Ferguson did. He broke the lockdown in order to engage in sexual relations with his polyamorous lover. Now, as it happens, I think that is perfectly fine too, and Ferguson should not have lost his job just for getting his end away. As I wrote at the time, 'Ferguson can screw who he wants. He can even defy the lockdown if he wants.'

But let's not erase all moral complexity from these issues. Parents travelling 260 miles to ensure that their child can be looked after if they become desperately ill is not a grave lockdown crime. Actually, I think it's pretty admirable. In more normal times, in a more morally coherent era than ours, the media might even have celebrated such parental commitment rather than demonising it.

But, sadly, we live in odd times. Brexit, as we know, drove some people a little potty. The visceral hatred for Cummings in certain quarters is intensely political and entirely tangled up with Brexit, in which he played a key role. Much of the rage against – stop the press! – two worried parents driving north is infused with this lingering vexation with Brexit.

Understandably, some people are responding to the Cummings story by pointing out that many people have had to make terrible sacrifices during the lockdown. Some have not been able to visit their parents. Some have even missed funerals.

But this is not an argument against the personal decisions Cummings made. It's an argument against the lockdown itself, which increasingly strikes me as a cruel, blunt device that is having baleful impacts on people's lives and the economic health of the nation.

As it happens, many people are bending the rules. A survey found that 29 per cent of us have broken the lockdown. So Cummings is joining a pretty large number of rebels. We didn't actually need a signal from officialdom to use our common sense – we already are. When the lockdown forces us to do something unspeakable or immoral – such as miss the funeral of a loved one – some people ignore it. I know people who have done this. It is utterly human behaviour. It is something worth celebrating in this otherwise dark moment.

I don't recognise the fuming moralism the media and others want me to sign up to. I'm more shocked that a neighbour phoned the cops about Cummings' presence in Durham than I am about Cummings being to Durham. I'm more disturbed by the abuse being hurled at parents who did what they thought was best than I am by the possibility that they did not adhere to the letter of the guidelines.

I'm more offended by the constant invitation to join a raging mob against people who make careful personal decisions – whether it's Cummings as a father, Ferguson as a lover, or the tired mum who goes to the beach for some sun – than I am by any of the lockdown-breakers. The hate for Cummings is worse, by a very large degree, than any wrong he may have committed.