So overwhelming has been its effect, as it has reached into every nook and cranny of our daily lives, it’s difficult to remember a time before Coronavirus. A few months on from a thumping election victory and apparently ‘getting Brexit done’, Johnson must be wistfully thinking whether he will ever see his sunlit uplands again.
The consequences of the pandemic cannot be overestimated and the full effects of it have yet to be felt. However partisan you are, it is inevitable that whichever government had been holding the reins, mistakes would have been made. This government has made its fair share, but it is the nature of how they have reacted to these mistakes that is such a concern. The Cummings trip to Durham is just the latest mis-step, but it encapsulates the true nature of this government. During this national emergency collective action, self sacrifices for the greater good and above all trust in our government is essential. These have now all been thrown in the air, as a result of a scramble to protect one person, who didn’t believe the rules applied to him. The consequences of his actions are a potential threat to public health and may well cost further lives.
A quick zoom through the mis-steps; Johnson’s non attendance at COBRA meetings; herd immunity; Boris Johnson 3rd March, “I shook hands with everybody”- on the day the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised against it; confusion over key workers; delays to lockdown; abandoning of containment phase and contact testing; building sites kept open; PPE shortages and the non apology from Priti Patel; missing out on the EU PPE scheme; the care home crisis, discharging of hospital patients to care homes without testing and delayed lockdown; downgrade of Covid-19 as a high consequence infectious disease, allowing reduced standard of PPE equipment for health workers; lack of testing and double counting of tests to meet targets; lack of ventilators; Immigration Health Surcharge u-turn; rail season ticket refund rip-off; Hancock’s patronising watch your tone response to Dr Rosena Allin-Khan; “Stay Alert” messaging; Boris’s Sunday night announcement; Gove’s guarantee that teachers will be safe in schools, contradicted 10 seconds later; the highest number of deaths in Europe.
The impact of the virus has been devastating for so many families across the UK, with landmark events postponed and the unbearable anguish of relatives having to die alone, save for the attentions of our wonderful health workers. I’m no fan of Boris Johnson, but I was concerned when he went to hospital and shocked when he was admitted to intensive care. In times of national emergency people do cling to institutions whether it be royalty, government or the Church and it felt like we were in a time where there was no limit to the bad things that can happen. The public rightly got behind the government and there was no willingness for them to fail, the consequences were too severe for that. This collectivism was matched by the government opposition who supported the government and were studious in being anything more confrontational than a mildly critical friend. It’s difficult to over-emphasise the amount of goodwill that was behind the government.
However cracks began to show and credibility ebbed away, a trickle at first, then a steady stream. As the mis-steps added up, the true nature of the key players was revealed. Whether it was Hancock’s patronising tone, Johnson’s lack of attention to detail, or Patel’s plain arrogance, the masks steadily slipped. A mounting concern about how health workers were being let down by a lack of Personal protective Equipment and a rapidly increasing death toll shook the public’s confidence. The ‘stay alert’ message confused just about everyone and for the first time during the crisis the government was becoming the target of ridicule.
But on to Cummings. So many government ministers lined up behind him that there are too many too mention, but the most bizarre intervention came from the Attorney General Suella Braverman, who cast all worry about the potential breach of the law aside in favour of doing what’s best for your family. On this basis theft or shoplifting would now seem to be permitted under the defence of “I was just looking after my kids gov!”. If Cummings goes, the Attorney General must go too.
The problem is that Boris Johnson and the obedient line of ministers have now boxed themselves so tightly into a corner that they are damaged whatever happens to Dominic Cummings. If he stays it will cause inevitable damage to the credibility of the government. If he goes, they have defended him so resolutely, in the face of basic facts, that their credibility will be severely damaged. It won’t be terminal for the Conservative government as a majority of 80 can’t be easily eroded, but it may set the tone for the rest of the parliament. The same cannot be said for Boris Johnson, he is now so intertwined with Cummings that the fallout whatever it is could be fatal to his premiership. I know what I’m about to say is a bit ‘left field’, but is this actually some sort an exit strategy by Johnson? If it is he’s playing a blinder, if he’s not he’s in deep trouble.
Johnson’s defence of Cummings on Sunday evening was shambolic and genuinely one of those jaw dropping moments where he said Cummings acted responsibly, legally and with integrity. This was not just a defence, but a thumping endorsement of his behaviour. The die was cast, there was no going back now. However it was clear that this approach hadn’t worked. A UK wide collective approach to fighting the virus was now matched by a UK wide ‘WTAF’ moment. In an attempt to clear up this debacle Cummings was permitted use of the Downing Street rose garden to attempt a further defence.
I actually thought Cummings delivered his statement quite well, but it was during the questioning that it all seemed to fall apart and some cross referencing of his answers both with previous articles and his recent statement threw up a number of anomalies. When questioned why he had travelled to Durham with his wife who potentially had Covid-19 he answered that she didn’t have symptoms. However, in his statement he said that there was a distinct probability that he had already caught the disease and discusses being worried if they both became ill. He can’t have it both ways. Either they suspected they had Coronavirus and shouldn’t have travelled – or they didn’t think they had it and therefore there was no exceptional need to travel for child care? Further, have they seriously got no friends within a 260 mile radius who could have helped out? I also distinctly remember being advised not to travel on the roads as the potential for accidents would place an extra burden on already overstretched emergency services. The reasons given for the trip to Barnard Castle were totally bonkers, although that was topped by Michael Gove’s attempted defence of it! Above all the complete lack of contrition or even the weakest apology was remarkable and confirmed the arrogance of a person who thought the rules didn’t apply to him.
One of the defences put up by Cummings supporters is that the whole affair is just froth from the metropolitan elite, sore loser remainers and a lazy and entitled political class. This is patently untrue. The UK public can see when they are being taken for complete mugs. While there may be a certain amount of leeway, a flagrant disregard of rules which have been strenuously adhered to at great personal cost by the vast majority of the population plays very badly. Johnson may feel that he can brazen it out, but I don’t see a good way out of this for him. Any future claims that he is on the public’s side will ring hollow. In the medium term while the number of Covid-19 daily fatalities are falling, there remains the threat of a second peak – the risk of which has been increased by the actions of the person he has so resolutely defended.
Even if the pressure becomes too much and Cummings falls or is pushed, the damage has been done. Economic news is likely to be extremely dire for the foreseeable future and any enquiry into the response to the pandemic may not portray the government in a favourable light. Further, while previously for many there may have been no palatable alternative to Johnson, this is now no longer the case. A forensic Starmer, with an attention to detail and gravitas that Johnson sorely lacks, is likely to run rings around a PM who is rarely on top of his brief.
Johnson may well as his hero Churchill said “keep buggering on”, but there may come a time where his Party may just prefer him to “bugger off” if he is seen as a liability. Once you ‘lose the dressing room’ you rarely get it back. There would be a certain irony if a Durham minor was to lead to the eventual downfall of a Tory prime minister.