How Boris Johnson’s gamble on one lie too many pushed the British public over the edge

Rachel Shabi
Boris Johnson will come out of the crisis a diminished figure following the Cummings scandal: Getty

It’s one thing to live through a terrifying pandemic, but another thing entirely to do so under a blundering government. And during the past week, as Boris Johnson’s government dodged and lied to protect an adviser, while the nation’s coronavirus death rate became the highest, the mask finally came off even for many previous supporters of this failing administration, exposing the moral vacuum behind it.

In just one week, the government trashed its public reputation, with Johnson’s approval dropping an eye-watering 20 points. As news emerged that the prime minister’s aide, Dominic Cummings, flouted lockdown measures with a family road trip to Durham, the nation united in outrage. Nearly 100 Conservative MPs revolted over Johnson defending his chief aide, while vicars, police officers and previously sympathetic columnists have voiced criticism. We watched Cummings claim a drive to Barnard Castle was an entirely permissible sight test and government ministers pretzeled themselves trying to make this sound legit. The ensuing mockery of government was allayed only by public rage.

It wasn’t just the hypocrisy and elitism of Cummings breaking rules and getting away with it, but the jarring comparison with experiences of millions of Britons who had followed lockdown instructions. As painful accounts poured out across radio phone-ins and MPs’ mailbags, we saw the socially isolated grieving and anguish of lockdown in granular detail that has thus far been muted. People had been silently sacrificing and privately mourning; following the rules and suffering. But seeing Cummings unapologetically flout the lockdown and face no consequences released a valve of pent-up pain. And now, those sentiments are inextricably bound: individual agonies laced with the government snubbing its nose at our anguish. Such feelings are not easily forgotten. As Peter Kellner, former president of polling company YouGov has explained, broad judgements over values such as trustworthiness or fairness matter more for most voters – to the extent that Johnson may never recover the public support haemorrhaged over this incident.

But the damage goes even further for the Conservatives. In defending the indefensible, the government has given the public permission to cast a more critical eye over its wider handling of the pandemic. This episode has collapsed any holding back out of a sense of national unity. Add to that our human tendency, once someone has been caught in a lie, to try and trace any prior deceptions. It won’t take long to piece together the devastating catalogue of government blunder, hubris and delay which left Britain shockingly ill-prepared for the coronavirus crisis and caused needless deaths.

While it may be edifying to see right-wing columnists concede that having a duplicitous clown as prime minister is, in fact, a problem, there are few comforts here for the left. Keeping Cummings in post may make matters worse for the Conservatives but it also jeopardises efforts to maintain social compliance with lockdown measures – putting us all at risk. Meanwhile, there is a danger that public anger will feed into a more generalised perception that all politics is self-serving and elitist. Such fatalism may well be calcified by a current lack of accountability as, one by one, institutions flounder or are flouted by the leadership. We see the government’s scientists gagged by the prime minister, unable to comment on whether Cummings has derailed vital public health messages. The BBC loses its nerve over a factual – and therefore critical – narration of the government’s handling of this incident on Newsnight and backs down. A parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinising details of the coronavirus response is steamrollered by Johnson’s empty bluster.

Each day the pandemic exposes the failures of a stripped-back state, its underfunded engines spluttering on the corrosive oil of social inequality. Each new announcement – over-testing, tracing, or the reopening of schools and workplaces – reveals the limitations of a stunted government assembled solely on the basis of fealty to Johnson. The sense of things falling apart in mid-crisis is numbing because this volume of despair is simply not sustainable.

If there is any hope, it lies in the collaborative efficiency of mutual aid groups and civil society, pulling together to plug some of the worst social gaps. Policies that build a sustainable way out of the pandemic are being crafted by left-wing think tanks and campaigns, setting out new terrain defined by state-funded universalism and collectivism – principles the pandemic has shown to be non-negotiable. And beyond all that, there is the sliver of hope that Cummings-gate has produced a shift. That despite the efforts of a hard-right party and its press supporters to seed the idea that lying is consequence-free, it is now obvious that this could not be further from the truth. And nobody needs a sight test to see it.

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