Boris’s gamble

Boris’s gamble

by Linda Holt
article from Sunday 24, May, 2020

AS I WRITE, I have no idea if Dominic Cummings will eventually fall on his sword, deciding à la Alastair Campbell that the advisor has to go when he becomes the story. 

Regardless, it is clear that many in media-land and beyond are sniffing blood. The pile-in began with Saturday’s revelation and intensified today, with allegations that Cummings breached the rules two more times, providing a deliberate drip of further ignominy. Journalists know that if they can only whip up enough outrage – ironically framing Cummings' and Johnson's crime in the populist terms which they used to win the Brexit referendum and last November's election – then Conservative MPs and grandees will crumble and Cummings is toast.

I hope that does not happen, and I hope that Boris Johnson can stick to his guns.

It is impossible to exaggerate the ogre-like proportions Dominic Cummings has assumed in the imaginations of anti-Tories, Remainers and the bien-pensant enclaves of the metropolitan media. Cummings is seen as crucial to keeping Johnson in power, achieving Brexit and reforming the civil service. The latter cause has already caused ructions and is set to upset multiple apple-carts.

Editors deliberately neglect to edit his red eyes out of photos, casting him as Boris’s Rasputin. Bringing him down isn't just irresistible, it's virtually a moral injunction. The Cummings story has unleashed a lynch mob in the Twittersphere and media. This morning journalists shamelessly presented people who could not visit dying relatives in care homes as having an unimpeachable justification in being angry with Cummings. 

Facts don't matter to a lynch mob. With his wife infected with Covid-19 and self-isolating at their home in London, Cummings drove his family 260 miles to self-isolate in a property near his sister and her family. The reason was that they would have better access to care and support, especially if they became ill enough not to be able to care for their 4-year-old son. This doesn't breach any rules, as the Deputy CM made clear yesterday; the guidance specifies childcare needs as a legitimate reason for travel.

In today's press briefing, Boris Johnson defended Cummings' behaviour, insisting that Cummings ‘acted responsibly, legally and with integrity’, and ‘with the overwhelming aim of stopping the virus’.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, governmental messaging has been deceptively simple, necessarily reduced to catch-phrases and slogans. But life rarely fits into neat commandments, and I suspect that many of the commentators and politicians now baying for Cummings' blood have stretched the lockdown injunctions according to their needs. On Friday Nicola Sturgeon was at pains to emphasise that people should use their own judgement when interpreting the rules, but when does such interpretation become a stretch too far, an unacceptable breach? This tension is inherent in the lockdown instructions themselves, some of which are clear-cut laws and some only guidance. This uncertainty has worsened with the relaxation of lockdown, as can be seen in the illogicalities and inconsistencies in Scotland's Phase 1, and it will undoubtedly get worse despite – or rather because – more detailed guidance is issued.

Two elements of my own experience strike me as relevant. First, the Cummings case reminded me of my own terror and sense of vulnerability when I was a new mother with no experience of childcare, no friends with children, and no family in the country to fall back on. If at that time my husband and I had both caught a disease, which could have pole-axed us or worse with virtually no notice, I think we would have fled somewhere where we could be confident our child would be cared for if the worst happened.

Hindsight might have revealed that to be a panicky over-reaction, but no one should underestimate the anxiety that a life-threatening illness can generate for those in sole charge of a young child. If politics has any response to such a situation, it should be one informed by empathy and human understanding, not by hyperbolic condemnation and political calculation.

Second, as a councillor in an area with many holiday homes, I have received numerous complaints from constituents about people breaching the lockdown by moving into these homes. I always recommend contacting the police; sometimes the constituents come back to me because the police have not removed the alleged offenders. I then contact the police and receive confidential advice that the alleged offenders had an acceptable reason for apparently breaking the rules. In other words, the police know the lockdown rules are not simple, and they cannot apply them in a black and white way.

The lynch mob ignores the fact that Cummings’ actions are qualitatively different from those of the former Scottish Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood and the government scientist Neil Ferguson, both forced to resign after breaching the lockdown. Calderwood and Ferguson were high-profile spokespeople for the lockdown rules; Cummings' role is unequivocally backroom. More importantly, both Calderwood and Ferguson chose to break lockdown for their own leisure; they had no acceptable justifications or mitigating exceptional circumstances. At today’s briefing, Boris Johnson emphasised the ‘sharp distinction’ that Cummings went into self-isolation, and that by moving his family to Durham he removed the risk that his self-isolation in London would be compromised by the need to secure childcare.

The third key difference is that we are weeks on from the Calderwood and Ferguson stories. Back then, all attention was on getting the public to observe the lockdown, and anything undermining that goal was obviously dangerous and unwanted. But both the agenda and the mood music have now changed irrevocably. A few weeks ago, people were far more frightened and adhered far more religiously to the lockdown. Politicians, and to an even greater degree business and the public, are now focussing on relaxing the lockdown, on identifying the contexts and circumstances in which lockdown can and should be breached en masse.

Johnson's aim at today's briefing was to draw a line under the Cummings affair. This depends on no further breaches by Cummings that are clear-cut being confirmed – which is was what undid it for Nicola Sturgeon when she tried to hang on to Catherine Calderwood. At the moment it's impossible to say whether Johnson's gamble will pay off. Will the British people accept his explanation? Will there be enough who have no skin in this Westminster game? Insofar as people have had enough of the lockdown and are desperate to get on with their own lives, Johnson may well win. 

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