Notes From the Margins…

Meltdown in Johnson Street

  • May 25, 2020
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There are moments in history when governments or leaders that seemed to be impregnable are suddenly revealed to be weaker and more despised than they believed themselves to be, or than many of those they ruled assumed them to be.  You might cite the 1789 Tennis Court Oath.  Or the Boston Tea Party.  Or the speech that President Ceaucescu of Romania gave on 21 December 1989, when crowds booed and interrupted him for the first time in 24 years of power.

Yesterday, one of those moments occurred exactly 22 minutes and 30 seconds into Boris Johnson’s daily briefing, when the journalist Robert Peston let out an audible sigh, following Johnson’s glib and evasive responses to his questions regarding Dominic Cummings’s movements during lockdown, and whether shops and businesses would be opening in June.  Most of those who watched the briefing will have only heard the sigh, like the hiss of a punctured balloon, or someone letting out an airbed, echoing round the paneled room where Johnson stood hunched over the podium with all the gravitas that you might expect from a bleached gorilla.

Clips of the interaction show Peston on screen, leaning back with an expression of frustration and disbelief. Peston probably didn’t intend this moment to be captured for posterity.  This is a court journalist who has spent much of the last few months using the country as a giant focus group, floating titbits of policy and briefings from anonymous ‘sources’ within the government to see how the population reacts to them.

Not the best way to manage a pandemic, but we are where we are.  And whether intentional or not, Peston expressed the despair, disbelief and teeth-gritting frustration that many viewers also felt at the callous condescension of a leader who will surely go down as the worst prime minister of the worst government in British history.

Johnson’s emergence from wherever he spends his time was the culmination of a chaotic political weekend, in which Tory cabinet ministers and MPs had taken to Twitter or television to pontificate on the movements of Brexit’s own Lex Luthor.   Not surprisingly, most of them appeared to have received a good lash of the whip, and insisted that Cummings had either not broken the rules imposed by his own government in traveling up to Durham in the same car as his infected wife, or had only done so because he was an exemplary parent in seeking childcare 260 miles from his home.

Naturally anyone who thought otherwise was ‘politicising’ the issue.  From Matt Hancock and Michael Gove to the hapless Grant Schapps, this sanctimonious chorus seemed entirely oblivious to the corollary of this message: that the millions who did not travel even far less distances to seek childcare arrangements during quarantine were not good parents and cared less about their loved ones than Cummings did.

To say that this messaging was a little tone deaf to our current predicament is understating it by a long way, in a country with the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, where millions of people have restricted their movements in order to save lives – exactly as the government ordered them to do.  According to the Queen our empty streets were ‘filled with love’, but certain streets in Durham were also filled with Dominic Cummings.

For most of the last nine weeks,  people all over the country have not even been able to visit their own dying relatives to hold their hands or attend their funerals, because of the obligations imposed by the government, which they accepted.

Yet here were MPs and cabinet ministers suggesting that the man who broke his own government’s rules was really the caring parent, and they did so with even realising how callous, patronising and crass this might sound.

And let’s not forget the lying.  In an article in the Spectator, Cummings’s journalist wife suggested that the family had remained in London throughout the pandemic.   Even when the Guardian and the Mirror revealed yesterday that Cummings had in fact made a second trip to Durham, with the suggestion that there might even have been a third, the chorus continued to bray.

Downing Street dismissed the Guardian‘s revelations as ‘inaccurate’ allegations from a ‘campaigning newspaper.’

Dan Hodges and the Guido Fawkes puppetboy Tom Harwood were rolled out onto the radio and television to defend Cummings.  On Twitter Caroline Flack’s name began to trend, as as government supporters accused Cummings’s critics of hounding and bullying him.

Such gutterscrapings are only to be expected from the likes of Hodges and Harwood, but it was nevertheless a breathtaking sight to watch an entire cabinet, and more than fifty Tory MPs, colluding in a cover-up in order to save the career of an unelected special advisor, even though Tory MPs were beginning to express their disquiet, and calling on Cummings to resign or be sacked.

Yesterday Johnson did neither of these things.  Instead he insisted that Cummings was merely being a good father – something that Johnson apparently feels very strongly about – that he obeyed the rules, and that Johnson therefore saw no reason to ‘mark him down.’  Inconvenient details were skated over or ignored, as Johnson repeated the same answers over and over again,  in a performance that began at lacklustre and quickly dropped several levels into the utterly abysmal.

That was why Robert Peston sighed yesterday.   Other viewers have been less restrained: the anonymous civil servant who denounced Johnson’s ‘arrogant and offensive’ performance and the ‘truth-twisters’ he or she was forced to work with, in a Tweet that sounded like a message from a hostage’s cry for help; the thousands of people venting their rage and contempt on Twitter and social media; the senior police officers, the lawyers, the Anglican bishops, and the newspapers – even the Daily Mail.

Look on Twitter and you will find the likes of Isabel Oakeshott, Peter Bone and Tim Montgomerie condemning the government.   Yes, it’s come to that. So this is a genuine turning point.

Of course it follows many, many points that should have been turning points,  and all the years of lying, manipulation, and populist fakery that went into the construction of the ‘Boris’ persona,  that enabled a foolish country to elect a man who should never have left the pages of the Daily Telegraph to the highest office in the land.  How journalists liked Peston liked to chuckle and giggle at the cheekie chappie chancer.

They’re not laughing now, because as Dylan once said, even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked.   And yesterday Johnson did that in public, and what he revealed was so horrific that many of his own supporters had to look away and cover their eyes.

I recognise that all this falls a long way short of the Tennis Court Oath or the fall of Ceaucescu.  As historical episodes go, the Cummings affair is low tragedy – opéra bouffe acted out by political lowlifes.  If it was a ballet it might be called Death Dance of the Charlatans.

The real tragedy is elsewhere; in the lies of Brexit and the Tory civil wars that have poisoned our politics, in the years of misgovernance that have destroyed any notion of the common good, in the catastrophic response of the Johnson government to the pandemic and the tens of thousands of lives that have been lost as a result.

But as sordid as the events of the last three days have been, they have dealt a massive blow to the credibility of Johnson and his government that may well herald the end of his premiership.  They have exposed weaknesses of character and weaknesses of leadership that should have been obvious a long time ago.  They have revealed Johnson’s ministers and many of his MPs to have been as condescending, dishonest, and abject as he is, in their servile deference to an unelected special advisor.

Their communications strategy – already dangerously awry – has now crashed and burned.  In their deference to Cummings they they have broken the vital bonds of trust with a traumatised population that is desperate to find a way out of this pandemic.

Even if Cummings goes, it will almost certainly be too late to repair the damage.  For reasons that we still don’t entirely understand, Johnson and his cronies have burned their political capital in order to save their special advisor.

In any normal country, Cummings would have been gone last week.  Instead this increasingly rudderless government has placed its own narrow political concerns above the nation’s health in the midst of a national emergency.

A government that does that doesn’t deserve to be where it is.

And if there is one good thing that we can take from this, it might be the thought – or hope – that we may now be looking at the beginning of its end.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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