New Times,
New Thinking.

This could be the moment the public finally sees through Boris Johnson

The depth of fury against the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings transcends normal political divisions. 

By Martin Fletcher

No, Prime Minister. Your conduct at yesterday’s Downing Street briefing was not acceptable.

In a mature democracy, at a time when you have demanded enormous sacrifices from millions of your fellow citizens, you cannot seek to deflect entirely legitimate questions about the conduct of your top aide with flannel, evasion and obfuscation. 

You cannot simply declare yourself “content” that Dominic Cummings acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity” and expect the country meekly to accept that. You cannot claim some of the allegations against him were “palpably false” without saying which and why. You cannot ignore the questions you do not want to answer. You cannot get away without so much as a hint of apology or contrition.

At the very least you need to explain why it was permissible for Cummings, his wife and his four-year-old son to drive 264 miles to his parents’ house in Durham, when he had yet to contract Covid-19 and the rest of the country had been ordered to stay at home; why, even if he did fall ill, his family could not be supported by friends and relatives in London as countless other families were; whether he stopped at service stations en route, thereby jeopardising the lives of others; whether you sanctioned his journey; whether he and his family visited Barnard Castle on 12 April; and whether they subsequently returned to Durham from London and visited Houghall Woods on 19 April in an apparent breach of the lockdown rules.

No impartial observer would consider those unreasonable questions. Indeed journalists – of which you were once one yourself – would be remiss not to ask them. And yet you chose not to answer them last night, staging instead a charade of a press conference. 

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Earlier, after the Guardian and Sunday Mirror printed the allegations concerning Houghall Woods and Barnard Castle, your Downing Street spokespeople likewise opted for evasion, stating: “We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers.” So-called “friends” of Cummings – almost certainly the man himself – sought to dismiss the charges as “fake news”.

There is a pattern here. From the moment you became Prime Minister, and even before, you have sought to avoid being held to account. You have sought to avoid detailed scrutiny by MPs and journalists, even though accountability and scrutiny are essential ingredients of sound democracy.

In the run-up to last summer’s Conservative Party leadership election, your preferred means of communication with the public was your paid-for column in the Daily Telegraph, and you ducked three of the six nationally televised debates.

As Prime Minister, during last autumn’s fraught battles over Brexit, you attempted to prorogue parliament for five weeks until the Supreme Court ruled that unlawful. You introduced “People’s PMQs” on Facebook – a ruse that gave the impression of openness and transparency but allowed you to vet the questions and avoid proper interrogation by professionals. 

During the December general election campaign you – alone of the party leaders – refused to be questioned by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and at one point hid in a refrigerated warehouse to avoid a television crew. You sent Rishi Sunak, then chief secretary to the Treasury, to represent you at two televised debates, and Channel 4 replaced you with a block of melting ice after you ducked the debate on climate change. You campaigned instead through stage-managed photo ops and mendacious sloganeering.

Since the start of the coronavirus emergency, you have made just one statement to the House of Commons on the biggest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War. You have led just three of the 70 daily Downing Street briefings since 16 March, even though the journalists invited to pose questions are severely hampered by their lack of comeback. You have faced Keir Starmer in just three PMQs since he became Labour Party leader seven weeks ago, though admittedly there have been extenuating circumstances. Again, your preferred means of communication is through televised statements from Downing Street that avoid the need to answer questions.

On Wednesday you will face the Liaison Committee of 36 select committee chairs for the first time since becoming prime minister, but only after your government imposed its own man, Bernard Jenkin, as its chair, in defiance of the committee’s members.

Your refusal to answer questions about Cummings is not hard to understand. The proverbial dog in the street knows that he broke the spirit, and almost certainly the letter, of the lockdown rules, but you cannot sack him because you cannot survive without him. He made you. He steers you. He controls you.

You will doubtless attempt to brazen out this scandal, notwithstanding the considerable damage Cummings has done to your government’s credibility and the nation’s battle against Covid-19. You have a big majority. The next general election is far away (2024). You will bluster and lie. You will seek to distract attention with headline-grabbing stunts, announcements and – quite possibly – the premature lifting of restrictions. You will demand support from your spineless cabinet and the sycophantic right-wing press. You will hope that the public will move on and forget.

You may succeed, but I’m not certain. I sense a depth of public fury on this issue that transcends party and the old Brexit divisions. The disgust extends deep into Conservative Middle England, with even the Daily Mail mocking your performance yesterday, and throughout the “Red Wall” constituencies of northern England that delivered your election victory last December. 

It may be that the “people” you profess to champion have finally seen through you.

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