A few days ago, I sat down to write my hot take on the Dominic Cummings story and this is as far as I got…
I know, I know… Hugely disappointing, I’m sure. Don’t @ me. I know this is the bit where I’m meant to mine deep seams of filth to describe the man’s hypocrisy. And I could have done just that except…. well… I’m not finding myself getting that angry.
And, strangely, I feel terrible for admitting this. I look on social media and I just don’t feel my blood pressure rise in the same way as people on there are getting furious. That’s largely the reason I’ve not written about it. I don’t want to diminish their righteous anger simply because the place where I usually find mine just happens to sit empty.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that Dominic Cummings is politically toxic. There’s a reason I draw cartoons of the man. I was unashamedly a Remainer, still despise the politics around Brexit, and dislike what it sounds like he’s doing with the civil service. Yet I think it’s also fair to separate politics from what’s going on. That is, admittedly, difficult. The fact that I’m not now laying into him will mean some people think I’ve some stooge of the Tory right (far from it). Yet I also recognise that some of what we’re seeing coming from the media and political figures (and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two) is the natural predatory instinct they display when there’s blood in the water. Even inside the Conservative Party, Cummings was unpopular. He’s been weakened and his enemies will exploit that. The PM obviously wants to keep him around and has expended political capital hoping to achieve just that.
(Incidentally, I do get more angry about Johnson bringing forward by a week – if Channel 4 News are to believed – the announcement about schools opening next Monday. If they were brought forward, then surely that suggests the schools weren’t going to be opening on the 1st June. If they are now, then doesn’t that mean they are being opened to wrestle the focus away from Cummings? That bit does concern me.)
But let me go to second take, which is my personal take. That’s the initial “meh” I mentioned earlier.
I don’t want to diminish the anger that people feel because of the lockdown (I still hate that word, btw). I know people have faced some truly awful choices, faced situations that give them reason to be angry, but I can only speak for myself. Before his explanation in the Rose Garden, I felt that Cummings probably did the right thing. My opinion hasn’t changed. I still think he probably made the right call, though largely because I also think the government’s advice has been lousy from the start.
This is the crux of the issue. Cumming claims he understood the rules and believes he acted reasonably. That might be true. The problem is that the rest of the country seems to have had no idea what those rules were. Compared with Brexit, the government messaging has been third rate from the start of the crisis and right up to the present day. We’ve had cheap slogans and vague advice that rarely makes any practical sense. I mean: what exactly does “Be Alert” mean?
And why are there still people in the UK who don’t understand what a mask is for? Why is this not written on the bleeding moon already?
MASKS DO NOT STOP THE VIRUS.
MASKS REDUCE HOW MUCH OF THE VIRUS YOU SPREAD.
YOU WEAR A MASK TO PROTECT OTHER PEOPLE.
A MASK DOES NOT PROTECT YOU.
The government gave ridiculous leniency to all those Daily Mail readers worried about getting scolded by Joe Wicks for not getting their steps in each day, but they didn’t provide reasonable advice regarding how the rest of us live together. Was there really advice about young children? If there was, I can’t remember hearing about it. The advice regarding extended families also appeared to be extremely vague.
Here’s another non-trivial example. “Go to work if it’s safe to do so” does not cover what you’re meant to do when you have to take crowded public transport into a city because you have an unscrupulous boss. I noticed that Arriva buses issued advice about travelling on their services. We (though not me since I’m still not shifting) have to sit next to the window, leave a row between people, and we can’t stand. All sensible, I suppose, except there’s no advice about what we do when it’s not possible to leave these gaps. What does a person do: get on a bus, check if there’s a seat, and then buy a ticket? How does that work on double decker? What happens if they buy the ticket and then discover they can’t distance?
These are examples I pick almost randomly because they’ve struck me repeatedly over the past weeks. No doubt brighter brains than mine will have solutions but this is typical of the advice we’ve been having. If I was in London with my wife already sick, with nobody to look after my child, then I might decide to return home if I knew I could self-isolate with family close by. Perhaps that would make a hypocrite but I think my reasons are better than Neil Ferguson (sex) and Catherine Calderwood (as far as I can see, a bit of fresh air), and I found it equally difficult to argue for their dismissals.
I’m not saying that the government should have had a rule for every eventuality – “if you’re stressed our data modeller who really needs a bit of nookie then you can have your girlfriend around for a quick recompile on the sofa” – but I would have liked a little more pragmatism around the rules. I’m perfectly happy for the police to fine the last avocado latte out of the jogger who gasps within two metres of another person (happening too often) and charge people who spit with attempted murder, but the family member who sits in a car whilst another goes shopping was always a step too far.
So, on that personal level, I can’t bring myself to be angry about Cummings. I know this makes me an outlier but I always write honestly what I feel and… well… there it was.. As much I often reduce people to political cartoons, they are still people, sometimes faced with awful problems we occasionally face when real life doesn’t align neatly with hastily made and terribly communicated government regulations.
And if you want to argue that he should quit because of those hastily made and terribly communicated government regulations, well that’s a totally different matter…