Brendan O’Neill

What the fury about Cummings’s road trip is really about

What the fury about Cummings's road trip is really about
An effigy of Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson (Getty images)
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Is Durhamgate over now? It must be. Surely. With a simmering revolt in Hong Kong, riots in Minneapolis, heightened border tensions between India and China, and Twitter censuring the president of the United States, British journalists can't still be obsessing over whether Dominic Cummings stopped at a petrol station on a drive to Durham. If they are, it rather makes a fantastic irony of the fact that these are the kind of people who often refer to the rest of us at Little Englanders.

If – as so many of us hope – Durhamgate is finally fading away, now might be a good time to survey the wreckage. To look back on these feverish seven days in which journalists have thought and talked about little else other than the question of where Cummings self-isolated when ill, and ask what on earth it was all about. Why did some people get so het up about Cummings' drive to Durham? And why, even more strikingly, did Boris Johnson refuse to bend the knee to the whipped-up media fury by sacking Cummings?

I think it's pretty clear. What we have just lived through was not really about driving or Durham or even the lockdown. It was a revolt of the elites against a government they despise. And Boris knows this. In standing by Cummings in the face of one of the most relentless campaigns of media demonisation in recent times, Boris has just faced down the first revolt of the elites of his prime ministership. I think that's impressive. I also think other revolts will follow, and soon.

The least convincing thing I have heard Cummings obsessives say is that this isn't political. That the myopic focus on Cummings' activities during lockdown has nothing to do with Brexit or Boris or the Tories. It's just a plain, honest interrogation of officialdom to the end of ensuring that the integrity of the lockdown remains intact and public health remains the top priority. I'm sorry, but if you believe that then I have a vat of snake oil you might be interested in.

Anyone who has been to a middle-class dinner party or a political protest or for a pint with their leftish mates anytime over the past three or four years will know that Cummings holds a unique position in right-thinking circles. They hate him. Truly. They view him as a menacing Svengali, the puppetmaster of all of political life in the UK, the borderline demonic figure who led the British plebs to the cliff edge of Brexit, and the British economy to the precipice of post-EU insanity.

I'm not making this up. In October last year on a big Remainer march on Parliament (remember those?) there was a huge effigy of Cummings made to look like a Nazi. Cummings, of course, founded Vote Leave, which made him evil in these people's tear-stained eyes. On the effigy's head it said 'Demonic Cummings'. This vile creature was shown controlling Boris Johnson like a puppet. Because Cummings is all-powerful, you see. Controller of worlds, wrecker of dreams.

On pretty much every Remainer march I attended – strictly as an observer, you understand – I saw placards depicting Cummings as a devil-like figure and even as the Gollum of Brexit Britain. And of course much of this echoed the liberal media's depiction of Cummings as the manipulative mastermind behind Brexit, and later the Tories' smashing of the 'red wall', using his magic powers and wily social-media skills to brainwash 17.4m Brits into voting Leave and millions of Labour votes into backing Boris.

I've always thought that this view of Cummings was directly proportionate to the modern elites' sense that they were losing their grip on political ideology and public opinion. The more that ordinary people turned against the pro-EU outlook and bristled at the woke, identitarian agenda of the Corbyn movement, the more the liberal and left-wing set went searching for the thing that made this possible, the force that destroyed their political dreams.

And they landed, very often, on Cummings. They started to understand their political misfortunes and failures as the handiwork of one all-powerful bloke who broke the rules in order to break up political life.

They wildly exaggerated his influence on public life, of course. It is insulting to the millions of Brexit voters and millions of 'red wall' rebels to suggest that they were led astray by the social-media scheming and soundbites of allegedly dark political forces like Cummings. People can think for themselves. But unable to face up to this reality – the reality that ordinary people used their grey matter and decided they didn't want the EU or Corbyn – the opinion-forming set invented the myth of Cummings' awesome power to explain these political quakes.

That has been one of the great ironies of the anti-Cummings worldview: it has made Cummings appear more brilliant and powerful than he really is. A smart political adviser capable of reading the public mood was transformed into a Rasputin-like figure casting a spell over politics and the plebs.

And that is how we got to Durhamgate. This is why the media fury with Cummings' car journey has been so intense, so unhinged at times. It's not because these people think the lockdown rules must never be bent. They've probably done a bit of bending themselves. It's because here was a chance to wound the man who ruined right-on political life, and to injure the government he apparently puppeteers.

It was a revolt of the elites. Plain and simple. There is a section of society out there – I won't name any names – who were used to getting their way in virtually all matters political and cultural until Brexit happened. The vote for Brexit wasn't only ballot-box revolt against the EU, but even more importantly against the vast bulk of the political, media and business establishments here at home who favoured technocracy over democracy, expertise over the wisdom of the crowd, and neoliberalism over focused government investment in community life and public works.

The Brexit vote devastated the presumptions and privileges of those elites that had been taking shape from the 1960s onwards. Then, to add insult to injury, there was the 'red wall' rebellion: the mass exodus of working-class votes from a labour establishment that arrogantly took their votes for granted, and even desired to overthrow their votes for Brexit. More than in any other Western nation, even more than in the US, the modern elites of the UK have suffered some major democratic blows in recent years.

That is what Durhamgate is about. It is a revolt of the elites against a government enthusiastically elected by millions of people, including millions of Brexiteers and millions of the working classes. And in withstanding this revolt, in facing it down under incredible pressure, Boris has done something very, very important. He has said to these cosmopolitan, technocratic elites that they can't just throw their weight around; that they can't stamp their feet and get their own way anymore; that things have changed.

It was the first major battle between a new and popular political order and the bruised old establishments who feel cast out and confused. It won't be the last. Brace yourself, Boris.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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