Pandemic, power and a prime minister’s hubris

Published by The i paper (25th May, 2020)

The strange thing about politics is how stories about one person’s behaviour can detonate like a lethal missile as they expose wider truths and inflame fears lurking in minds of voters. David Cameron’s image was wrecked when a paper discovered that behind all the pictures of the shiny new Tory leader cycling to work was a car driving his shoes to the office. This single item showed the cosmetic nature of his party’s modernisation, fuelling suspicions that Cameron was just a smooth public relations operator – suspicions he never quite managed to shake off.

Now comes a far more serious matter. Dominic Cummings, the driving force behind Brexit and Boris Johnson’s subsequent rise to power, has breached lockdown rules. However much Downing Street spins, however much they squirm on pinheads, however many sub-clauses they find in official statements, the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser – a member of the Sage advisory committee – should not have gone from London to Durham with his family displaying symptoms of coronavirus. His actions cut across the Government’s strategy to defeat this deadly virus.

Slippery denials by first Grant Shapps, the unfortunate minister sent out to bat for the government on the dodgiest possible wicket, and then his duplicitous boss were simply insulting to fellow citizens who have endured tough times with amazing stoicism. Many people have struggled with children while sick with this virus. Millions more have stopped visiting elderly parents, even if living around the corner rather than at the other end of the country. My own father’s funeral came a few days before lockdown, so I sympathise with the fury of all those who have sacrificed such events only to learn about this self-serving behaviour by Cummings.

The Government’s response was to try to hide behind his four-year-old child. Yet it is contemptuous of the public to claim this as a safeguarding issue, then to dismiss valid concerns raised by journalists. No doubt Cummings’s Sage colleagues will be even more nervous now as debate intensifies over their actions after seeing how a scientist breaching lockdown was seen as expendable yet a ring of protection was thrown swiftly around a political aide. Ultimately, however, the job of one adviser – however influential – is of secondary importance to more important issues exposed by this sorry saga.

Note first the hubristic elitism of a Downing Street team who rode a populist revolt into power. They preach about representing ordinary people yet are so out of touch they had to be forced last week into making two U-turns amid public outrage. First they tried to exclude cleaners and care workers from a bereavement scheme offering indefinite leave to remain to foreign health staff. Then Johnson tried to hit them with a £625 surcharge  to use services some are risking their lives to serve. Now these political leaders show they think they can behave differently to us lesser folk over lockdown, something seen already with less egregious examples by both the Prime Minister and his housing minister.

True to form, Cummings even had the cheek to berate photographers over social distancing when challenged over his actions. This arrogance is seen also with the vindictiveness shown towards those that dare disagree with his cabal, a sign of both immaturity and insecurity. Witness Downing Street’s efforts to bully the media, which has led to placing false stories purely so they can knock them down to wound journalistic foes. More damagingly, it was seen also with the sacking of talented Tories who took a different path on Brexit or did not back Boris Johnson for leader, which has led to this third-rate Cabinet filled with pliable ministers.

Is it any wonder Britain has suffered badly in this crisis when the Prime Minister is so cavalier, his key strategist so selfish and his ministers so subservient? Yet such is the bunker mentality, something that so corrodes Westminster, that their reaction to an adviser’s misbehaviour was to close ranks instantly. They offered disingenuous excuses, tweeted risible defence lines and sought to spin their way out of trouble instead of simply trying to offer the betrayed public an apology for human failure.

This exemplifies much that has gone astray with politics. In the midst of pandemic, with thousands of deaths and the economy devastated, Downing Street’s response to a political squall was a deliberate stoking of confusion over lockdown strategy to defend one of its own. The health secretary undermined public health, the attorney general brushed aside respect for the law and police. All to protect one powerful aide, his interests placed above those of sixty-six million other citizens. Could there be a more brazen display of arrogant elitism by these people posing as populists?

Yet the underlying question is what this says about the Prime Minister, who acted to protect his aide at the expense of protecting public health in a pandemic. Already there are serious questions over Johnson’s leadership in this crisis, along with whispers in Westminster over the extent of his recovery from coronavirus. This affair raises questions over his culpability, since it is hard to believe he and other senior ministers had no knowledge of Cummings’s whereabouts. Such desperate clinging to a disreputable aide, however brilliant his intellect and campaigning abilities, inflames nagging doubts over competence and ethics.

We are still only in the foothills of this epic crisis, even if it feels like lockdown has dragged so long. Our leaders must confront massive dilemmas over protecting the public, opening up society, saving jobs and rebuilding shattered economies. As the death toll mounts, it is clear Britain has been hit harder than most rival nations.

Now this fuss over a Downing Street aide’s trip to his parents’ home provokes a profound question: is Boris Johnson really a fit and proper person who can be trusted to lead our nation out of the pandemic darkness?

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