Dominic Cummings is a convenient scapegoat for the government’s failures

Should Boris Johnson lose his most important adviser, it could be at the expense of propping up a damaging status quo. 

NS

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Dominic Cummings is the ruling class’s convenient viral scapegoat. The scandal around the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and his lockdown movements has dented the Tory poll lead, and presented the first major political crisis for Boris Johnson since victory at last year’s general election. However, its full meaning lies elsewhere.

The UK has handled the coronavirus pandemic appallingly. We have the third-highest per capita death rate in the world, coming in just behind Sweden, which has shunned lockdown, and Brazil, whose president was a Covid-19 denier until he contracted the virus himself. Countries as diverse as South Korea, Germany and Vietnam have managed to test and trace and provide adequate PPE for health workers, while the UK has failed on all counts. And yet, until now, government approval and Conservative poll ratings have soared. 

This support for the government is driven by three factors: fear; the dearth of alternatives; and a largely broken and supine media. 

The first factor is human and understandable. This crisis has been frightening. When contemplating the rising body count in March and April, we all felt that fundamental fear. Everyone wanted the government to do a good job and protect us. That mindset led to greater support for the status quo. It’s why approval ratings for governments across the world, regardless of political hue, went up in March and April, just as they tend to at the outbreak of war. 

The second factor stems from the lack of effective political opposition to Johnson's handling of the crisis. In the last weeks of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, Labour challenged the government to provide much greater support for the majority facing hardship in lockdown, highlighted the damage a decade of austerity has done to our health and other services and demanded conditions be imposed on those big businesses receiving government support. However, the public mainly wasn’t listening to an opposition team already heading for the exit. 

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the party has changed tack. Initially, polls showed that the public supported the government’s handling of the crisis and opposed attempts to “politicise” it. As a result, Starmer’s new team decided to scale back criticism of the government, and the advocacy of alternatives, under the rubric of avoiding “opposition for opposition’s sake”. Its critique has focused on procedural aspects, rather than the political decisions that define the UK’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.

The third is the triviality of our nation’s media. As a system of informing public discourse, the British media is a resounding failure – barring some honourable exceptions (such as The Sunday Times Insight team’s Covid-19 investigations). This historic breakdown is borne out by polling figures: trust in broadcast media is below the European average and the British press is the least trusted on the continent.

A media that sought to inform citizens would present the UK pandemic response alongside international comparisons and seek to explain the differences, rather than fixate on personalities or political gossip. In short, most people would both know that we have the third-highest per capita death rate in the world, and they would understand why. 

Into this mix walks the story of Cummings’ 528-mile round trip to Durham, undertaken while symptomatic. There is no doubt that it has captured public attention, and understandably so, with the majority of people saying he should resign. But the scale of the response to his actions, which he maintains were “reasonable”, compared to the real world results – death rates, intensive care bed numbers, testing spread, PPE availability – of the actions of the government is off the chart. 

Across the country, there is a deep well of unexpressed anger at the Johnson administration’s handling of coronavirus. On some level, most people know that the government isn’t doing a good job, but with little alternative being provided by the opposition and little accountability by the media, many say that it is. Cummings is now the lightning rod for much of this latent anger, his two minutes of hate allowing it to be indirectly expressed. 

Johnson is sticking by his man because he is vital to the government. Many Labour supporters, if they are honest, are desperate for Cummings to resign because he's the government’s most effective figure. His resignation would take one of the other team’s stars off the pitch. 

But pressure for Cummings to go will mount. He is the perfect viral scapegoat for a ruling class keen to avoid criticism over the handling of the pandemic or support for alternative economic systems. Anger that could focus on the fact we have the third-highest per capita death rate in the world, an inadequate testing regime, an unprepared health system and sky-high levels of inequality is instead funnelled towards the supposed personal hypocrisy of the government figure with the broadest alliance of enemies.

The Daily Mail and sections of the Conservative Party are hounding Cummings because they know how badly the government has handled the crisis and they don’t want it to get the blame. A temporary alliance of convenience with liberals and the left could allow them to shift public anger onto one man for his private actions and deflect attention from a decade of failed public policies.  

Those opponents of the government who are keen for a scalp should be careful what they wish for. Johnson could lose his most important adviser, but at the expense of propping up a damaging status quo.  

James Schneider is former head of strategic communications to Jeremy Corbyn and a co-founder of Momentum

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