The Dominic Cummings saga is essentially a conflict between the universal British belief that, when you are in a hole, it is best to get out of it by saying sorry and Boris Johnson’s government which believes it must never admit a mistake, let alone say sorry. The British believe that they are a fair people and this means, when they are wrong, they will be the first to acknowledge it and apologise. I often joke with friends that there is a very simple definition of Britishness: saying sorry all the time. The story I tell is how I once hit my head against the kitchen door and said sorry before realising I was apologising to the door. In 2010 Max Davidson even wrote a book called Sorry in which he described himself as a man who believes in saying sorry then waiting to be told what he is sorry for. In the book he also offers tips to would be apologisers. I doubt if, in any other country, a publisher would have felt such a book was worth publishing.
The British sense of fair play is so ingrained that it extends to everything from politics to sport to social activities and even everyday behaviour with neighbours. So, in the days of the empire when the British behaved brutally, which was not as unusual as British historians make out, they always consoled themselves by saying they had instituted an inquiry into what they called such ‘unBritish behaviour’. This they did after the Amritsar massacre when innocent Indians were gunned down. Some British historians have made much of this British sense of fair play when discussing the Nazi-style cruelty with which the British put down the Indian Revolt of 1857. They argue that when British soldiers behaved cruelly, there was always one upright British soldier who protested. This was in contrast to Germans where no German soldier ever raised any objections to Nazi atrocities.
Sport provides the best example of how the British feel the need to be fair. So, in cricket to get a batsman out, you have to appeal to an umpire and, unless you do so, the umpire will not give a decision. You have to exercise your judgement in making the appeal and this implies that you are being fair. English school children brought up on the game are taught that, when batting, if they edge a ball to the wicketkeeper, then they should voluntarily give themselves out even if the umpire decides they are not out. In one famous incident while batting Don Kenyon gave himself out although the fielding side had not appealed. And he was playing against Australia who are famous for never walking unless the umpire has given them out.
These children are also taught that they must not snitch on their classmates or neighbours as this is unfair even when those classmates are behaving badly.
There can be no disputing that Cummings did something that the rest of us did not believe we could do: drive 260 miles to his parents’ home in order to get child care. And this at the height of the lockdown. It may or may not have been against the strict letter of the rules but it certainly broke the spirt of them. In any event, as the Durham police have made clear, his drive to Barnard Castle, which was a further 70 mile round trip, to check his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London, was clearly against the rules. But, with Cummings believing he had done no wrong, there was no question of saying sorry.
It is evident that this has done enormous damage to Johnson and the question is why did Johnson indulge in such self-harm. One reason given is that Johnson hates losing those close to him. In fact Cummings’ behaviour fits in with how Johnson has often behaved. He has never been very good at admitting mistakes and tries to cover them up by deflecting the issue or refusing to answer questions about his actions.
All the stories that emerge from No 10 show Cummings’ vast influence and the central role he plays in this government, enjoying the sort of power no political adviser has ever had before. Cummings, the great creator of pithy slogans like ‘Take Back Control’ which won the 2016 Brexit referendum, or ‘Get Brexit Done’ to win the 2019 election, has clearly been the mastermind behind the Coronavirus slogans ‘Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’ and now ‘Stay Alert, Save Lives’. Johnson clearly feels he cannot lose such a master of the seductive art of sloganising.
All governments have important officials. However, they can be dispensed with. But, in this case, it is such a poor administration that it would be lost without Cummings. Never before has an unelected official who has never stood for office been so important and, as we face the greatest crisis since the second world war, this is very alarming. To get out of the pandemic we will need some tough decisions. If the government is effectively run by a man who, while helping make the rules, behaves as if the rules do not apply to him, then public trust is destroyed. This may or may not prove the turning point of the Johnson administration, as Black Wednesday was for John Major and the Iraq war for Tony Blair. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister could still pay a high price for refusing to let go of Nanny Cummings.