We, the people of what was formerly known as Great Britain, discovered over the Bank Holiday weekend that we had living in our midst an Untouchable. A man who owed allegiance to no law, no generally accepted form of civilised behaviour, who was beholden to no man and who had contempt even for life itself.
Dominic Cummings – the adviser to Boris Johnson – travelled 260 miles from London to County Durham in March to self-isolate with his family in flagrant breach of the country’s official lockdown guidelines, which specifically warned against long-distance journeys. He was a father of a young son, so it was said in his defence, and that made him a special case, if not a special one. Further reports suggested he took a second trip to the North East in April.
Few, if any countries, had more of a head start on the global pandemic than we did, but our government was slow and tardy. So far from learning from the experience of Italy, Johnson sat on his fat hands, toyed with the idea of a “herd immunity” policy – allowing the disease to do its worst and counting on the human immune system to eventually kick in – and during these lost days and weeks it’s estimated 200,000 people were unnecessarily infected.
Now our long-suffering friends around the world see not a chastened British government trying to put things right, but a soap opera being played out among the ruins as Johnson tries at all costs to Save Private Cummings. The prime minister was even willing to give up an uninterrupted break at Chequers, his official stately pile in the rolling Buckinghamshire countryside, to address a chaotic press conference on Sunday night in which he backed Cummings to the hilt and said that, so far as he was concerned, he had done nothing wrong.
Traditionally loyal Tory MPs began to break ranks as it was clear what Cummings had done – sanctioned now by the prime minister – made a lethal nonsense of the government’s lockdown rules. Voters who had originally got behind Johnson on the back of a slogan devised by Cummings – “take back control” – were left wondering about who was in control of Cummings as it clearly wasn’t the Johnson.
Unelected and unaccountable, Cummings grandly ordered journalists who had gathered outside his home to get out of his way with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. He saw no reason to deign give an interview and relied on his traditional method of briefing certain favoured journalists who obediently referred to him only as their “source.” Cabinet ministers wheeled out to defend him on the radio and television programmes had to admit they had not themselves talked to him, either, and so could only speak up for him in exasperatingly random terms.
Then on Monday finally he announced – very grandly and against all the rules for a civil servant – that he intended to address the nation from the Rose Garden behind 10 Downing Street. It was an honour normally accorded to a head of state, but these are strange times. It was originally going to be at 3 pm, then it was 4 pm, and finally at around 4.30 pm he showed up. A dull factotum in shirt sleeves who recounted in laborious but often contradictory detail what had happened. He said he never even contemplated resigning, and, making a mockery of the lockdown rules on a weekend when far too many people were congregating on the beaches as it was, he said ultimately they are a matter of individual judgment.
Were it not for the lockdown rules, I have no doubt that there would now be furious protests outside Downing Street. Insurrection hangs in the air. On the official Civil Service website a tweet went up after the prime minister had spoken saying “arrogant and offensive: can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?” Cummings, on his way home to his huge London townhouse, found himself behind shrieked at by neighbours who had kept to the rules, often at huge personal cost. The social networking websites were hot with the fury of people who’d been denied the chance to be with dying loved ones as Cummings had done what he had pleased because it was, so far as he was concerned, a matter of personal judgment.
My country hasn’t taken back control of anything. We find ourselves now controlled by a strange misfit of a man who once described himself not as a member of the ruling Conservative party, but an “anarchist.” What happens next in this grisly soap opera is anyone’s guess, but people are still dying. One hospital today announced it had so many people coming to it with the virus it could take no more. A second spike is almost certainly now upon us. Seldom can the reputation of a country have fallen so far and so fast, and, in all honesty, it breaks my heart. Forgive us, we have a government that knows not what it does.