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16 October 2020

Why Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings don’t care about charges of hypocrisy

It has become increasingly clear that the Conservatives don’t believe that the rules should apply to them. 

By Jonn Elledge

The story so far. In July 1999, right around the time that Nostradamus predicted that the great king of terror would descend on the world, Dominic Cummings’ parents bought a property near Durham. The detached house came with substantial land, including a barn, which in 2002 the family converted to a pair of homes. Although there was no evidence to suggest deliberate concealment, nobody thought to mention this to the planning department at Durham County Council.

Last spring, all eyes turned upon the converted barn, after Cummings – by now senior adviser to the Prime Minister – drove roughly 260 miles from London, so that he could use it to shelter himself and his family while sick with Covid-19. Once all concerned had recovered from the virus, somebody in the planning department at Durham County Council investigated, discovered “historical breaches” of planning control, but said that the whole thing had happened too long ago for enforcement action to take place. 

[see also: The dangerous legacy of the Cummings affair]

However: they did refer the matter to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), which assesses properties for council tax, and which ruled this week that said tax was due on the two new homes. However, it decided not to backdate it and demand payments – potentially upwards of £30,000 – to cover the past 17 years. 

“If it was anybody else, they would be getting charged and it would be backdated, or they would be getting taken to court,” the independent Durham councillor, John Shuttleworth, told the Northern Echo. “It just proves there [are] two sets of rules, one for them and another for everyone else.”

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Whether this is actually true or not is hard to say: the VOA maintains that it treats all taxpayers equally. But given this government’s history of punishing the poor, it’s a claim that’s resonated nonetheless. A tweet by Byline Times writer James Doleman, juxtaposing the Cummings story with another about a woman, too ill to work, who was jailed for a £4,742 council tax debt she couldn’t pay, has, at the time of writing, been shared over 30,000 times.

Why should the idea that the government believes there is one rule for it and another for the rest of us ring so true? Occam’s razor suggests that, well, it is true. Doleman tweeted screenshots of those stories out with the phrase, “All in it together” – paraphrasing a slogan from the early years of the Cameron government, ten years and several incarnations of the Conservative Party ago. That claim seemed hollow even then, made as it was by a coterie of rich people licking their lips at the prospect of slashing the welfare budget. But it’s one the Johnson government has never tried to make. 

Quite the opposite, in fact. It has refused to hold itself or its ministers accountable, no matter how dodgy or incompetent (or, in the case of the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, both) they turned out to be. Some ministers, most notably the Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, have appeared consistently and sincerely outraged by the idea that anyone on the opposition benches may have the gall to question them. 

[see also: “Marxist doe”: The money at the heart of the Robert Jenrick planning row]

I used to think all this was simple hypocrisy, but I’ve started to wonder if there’s more to it than that. Perhaps Shuttleworth was right and, on some fundamental level, they genuinely don’t think that the rules should apply to them. In Boris Johnson’s beloved Rome, after all, society was explicitly divided into the patrician and plebeian classes, and expecting the former to follow the same rules as the latter would have seemed absurd. 

So perhaps Stephen was correct when, on a recent New Statesman Podcast, he suggested that Johnson’s animating political idea was, “You can’t tell me what to do.” This is not to say he’s a libertarian or that he doesn’t believe in the authority of the state – simply that he doesn’t believe the state should be able to command the actions of people like himself. Is it still hypocrisy if, unlike those at the top of the Cameron government, the leaders of this administration genuinely do believe themselves exempt from the rules?

Whether the public agree, of course, remains to be seen. So far the Tory party’s polling has remained reasonably strong. But there was genuine anger at Cummings’ erratic dash to Durham, and with the country locking down again, it seems almost inevitable that someone in the upper ranks of government will again do something to remind us the restrictions don’t apply to the ruling class. 

Johnson has thus far got away with his “one rule for us, another for them” approach to government, because enough of the public still believe themselves to be implicitly included in the “us”. I’m not sure that can last.