Too smug to fail
The survival of Dominic Cummings is typical of the elite’s insulation from the pandemic, argues Paul Demarty
It is rather difficult to avoid the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s failure to sack Dominic Cummings is a catastrophic misjudgement.
MPs report email inboxes flooded with angry missives from constituents. An Opinium poll in The Observer reports that over 80% of the population believes that Cummings broke the lockdown rules, while over two thirds think he should resign or be sacked. It is little wonder. Johnson’s truculent defence of his Svengali was conducted in vague, dishonest terms - reference was made to ‘untrue’ media reports, without anything in the way of an indication as to which allegations were untrue.
That, however, was rendered moot by Cummings’s bizarre ‘Je ne regrette rien’ show in the rose garden, in which he admitted everything, including his 260-mile drive to visit his family, but denied he had done anything wrong. In truth, some of his excuses were so threadbare that they seemed almost to amount to satirical performance art. For a more arrogant showing in the face of political scandal, one would have to look to Donald Trump.
The initial assessment by Johnson and co - no doubt with a little nudging in the right direction from Cummings himself - seems to have been that this was merely going to be a little flap inside the Westminster bubble, with the provenance of the story - in the Labour-supporting Guardian and Mirror - offering an easy way out. That was clearly a misjudgement and, though the rightwing press initially stood back from criticism, the Daily Mail’s patience had run out. On May 25, it did one of its bloodthirsty front-page editorials - “what planet are they on?” asked the headline: no longer did the affair fit the ‘liberal media troublemaking’ stereotype.
The view of several Guardian and Observer op-ed writers that this could be a ‘new black Wednesday’ (that is, a truly fatal turning point, from which the government cannot recover) is almost certainly exaggerated, but still, in the short term, this fiasco is enormously damaging. At the outset of this crisis, the Tories enjoyed poll leads of up to 26% over Labour, but the Opinium poll had that down to 4%. For the first time since the pandemic crisis began, Johnson’s approval ratings are net-negative. He has plenty of time to repair the damage, of course, but plenty of damage to repair.
And the real damage is not to the Tories’ electoral prospects - one can hardly shed a tear over that - but to Britain’s pandemic response. The context will be familiar to readers - among countries for which reasonable data are available, Britain is having a spectacularly bad pandemic. Serious lockdown measures are repeatedly sabotaged by dysfunction between those in power who think it might actually be a good idea to listen to proper scientists, and those (probably including Cummings) who prioritise a return to ‘normality’. The result is that we have a confusing set of lockdown guidelines that are barely enforced at all, and thus a reproduction rate perilously close to 1 even before measures were relaxed on June 1. The promised ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system, according to some whistleblowers, is a Potemkin village - world-beating only in its complacency.1
With confidence in official advice already in free-fall, a scandal like the Cummings road trip can only increase cynicism, and add to the general chaos of the government’s response. It also ruled out any possibility of retreat from easing the lockdown, in spite of widespread alarm among scientists, since Johnson now desperately needed some ‘good news’. In the end, that all means more avoidable deaths.
At this point, it is probably safe to say that Cummings has survived this one, if only because the damage is done; the question for Johnson is merely whether he capitulates, having already burned the public trust that was at stake. He does not have any reason to do so. Why should he have stood by his man, though?
It is difficult to tell. On the face of it, special advisors (‘spads’) of this sort have served to tilt government in this country in a more ‘executive’, presidential direction, insulating the prime minister and senior cabinet colleagues from the general riff-raff of parliament. Tony Blair made a point of running things in this way, but also bureaucratically packing the Parliamentary Labour Party with his creatures. Within the new, ‘populist’ rightism of the likes of Boris Johnson, there is an additional Bonapartist frisson: one needs a Cummings - that is, a soi-disant ‘disruptor’ - to complete the picture of a stunning victory over the Westminster bubble, on behalf of ‘ordinary’ people.
Cummings’ aura of success in this connection begins with Brexit. He was in charge of the day-to-day runnings of the official Vote Leave campaign, and ran it so unscrupulously and tyrannically that the staffers nicknamed him Colonel Kurtz. When Johnson’s campaign to defenestrate Theresa May picked up steam, Cummings’ open contempt for parliament made him a perfect choice of spad - he and Johnson were aligned on the need for a strategy of tension, and - like Brexit - it all came off wonderfully with Johnson’s crushing general election victory last year.
Such types, however, are given to clay-footedness. It is one thing to win the war; another to win the peace. The Johnson-Cummings school of Bonapartism must necessarily build up resentment among those shut out of the charmed circle and subject to disloyal briefings and the like. Cummings makes a point of not joining the Conservative Party; his loyalty is to number 10, not to the Tories at large, or even very much to conservatism as an ideological complex. He therefore feels no accountability to Tory MPs, and tends - in his limitless self-regard - to view them as obstacles.
Though popular outcry was no doubt a major factor in the decision by scores of Tory MPs to criticise Cummings - especially when weighed against the slender majorities enjoyed by many - we must not rule out vengeance as a secondary motive. Illuminating, in this connection, is a follow-up story in The Guardian, which reports that Cummings is named in an unfair dismissal case brought by then-chancellor Sajid Javid’s spokeswoman, Sonia Khan. Cummings is alleged to have arranged for Khan to be frogmarched from Downing Street by armed police, because he believed she had been in contact with people close to Javid’s predecessor, Philip ‘Spreadsheet’ Hammond. Javid was reported to be furious at this, which he considered an insult. (The occasion for rehearsing these events, which took place in September, is the failure of government lawyers to keep Cummings’s name out of things.)2 If Javid could fall victim to such meddlesome trickery, then there are likely many other Tory MPs itching for payback.
Cummings, then, is probably experiencing a teachable moment. If you are a backstabbing bastard, and you build an anti-heroic public image on exactly that basis, a dramatic reversal from anti-hero to villain - what, in the world of professional wrestling, is called a ‘heel turn’ - is always a danger. In the current situation, the danger is very acute. The phenomenon of ‘Covid cops’ - curtain-twitchers denouncing those congregating in public places and what have you - does no real harm, because the ‘cops’ all blame different people, whoever they happen to come across flouting the rules. The result is a sort of ambient frustration at human caprice. Someone like Cummings obviously flouting the rules turns all the ‘cops’ in one direction - and many millions more besides. A scapegoat is born.
Though this is no doubt unpleasant for Cummings (poor thing!) and Johnson, there are some respects in which the establishment as a whole benefits. The scapegoat stands in for the sins of the ‘community’ - in this case the gross immorality of a society in which the powerful are minimally exposed to the ill effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cummings deflects anger from the many other elite individuals who have had a relatively pleasant convalescence - from Charles Windsor, safely recuperating in Balmoral (fleeing to the far north conveniently moments before lockdown was announced ... ), to Johnson himself, who had a bed kept aside for him in St Thomas’s hospital ‘just in case’, and then cheerfully withdrew to Chequers. But those individuals are themselves mere examples of wider problems. We know that the poor are more likely to die than the rich, proletarians than capitalists, the oppressed than the oppressor. We suspect that this divergence is even more marked when we consider ‘excess deaths’ rather than deaths directly resulting from infection, since it is the aforementioned categories of people who face financial ruin, homelessness, despair and so on.
So long as the story remains one of Cummings, Johnson and their shared contemptible hypocrisy, the Daily Mail can take the high road. Though they really are hypocrites, and shall hopefully be remembered as such, we do not pine instead for a bourgeois government of greater apparent moral probity. Britain is merely the degenerate case of a global problem: capitalism makes pandemics worse.