World media have reacted with disbelief to Dominic Cummings’ defence of his trip to Durham, saying that what the “machiavellian” adviser saw as reasonable behaviour did not appear so to many, and risked damaging not just Boris Johnson’s government but democracy itself.
“No regrets, no excuses, no resignations … Il ne regrette rien,” said Libération. Only once did the prime minister’s chief adviser appear confused, the French paper said, “almost taken aback by the question. Why no, he had not ‘offered his resignation, or even thought of offering it’, because he had absolutely no idea why he should have. Over and over again he repeated: ‘I acted reasonably’.”
Le Monde was equally astonished. “Usually, special advisers remain in the shadows,” it said. “At worst, when things go wrong, they quit. They never speak in public … But for more than an hour, Cummings delivered his version of the facts, assuring all that he had ‘acted reasonably’, without breaking the rules.” There was “no question of apologising. At most, he conceded one or two minor errors … But will the operation have been successful? It will, in any case, have shown how deeply Cummings wants to keep his job. And how deeply Boris Johnson cares about this very special special adviser.”
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It is perhaps apposite that the headline to my post is attributed to General Charles de Gaulle. In 1958, he came out of retirement as President of the Council of Ministers. He rewrote the French Constitution and founded the Fifth Republic. He was elected as President of France later that year and was re-elected in 1965 and held until his resignation in 1969. The slogan flyposted all over Paris during the 1968 civil unrest. “DO NOT ADJUST YOUR MIND – THERE IS A FAULT WITH REALITY” resonates with the situation today. De Gaulle was the dominant figure of France during the early part of the Cold War era; his memory continues to influence French politics.
Cummings’ university history tutor once described him as “something like a Robespierre”, “determined to bring down things that don’t work”. Five years after his revolution, Robespierre himself was deemed to be something that didn’t really work, and was “brought down”, to euphemise the business of being relieved of your head in front of an ecstatic mob.
No one man is indispensable, particularly Dominic Cummings. For all acres of newsprint and media coverage of Cummings character, the last few days are ultimately a terrible story about Johnson. “Wash your hands, wash your hands” the prime minister kept gibbering last night. He’s certainly washing his hands of it all. All populists secretly hate their people, and Johnson is no different. But that “secretly” is key. His decision to keep Cummings brings his contempt for those he is meant to serve into the open. He would rather endanger their lives by compromising a vital public health strategy.
But why? The thing about Johnson is that he desperately wanted to become prime minister, and he desperately wanted to have been prime minister. It’s just the bit in between he struggles with. With Othello, it was jealousy. Macbeth: ambition. Lear: pride. Johnson: career liar, hollowed out by narcissism, who not even his friends would joke was motivated by public service. I guess it’s the little things that trip you up, isn’t it?
Anyone who imagines his defence of Cummings is born of loyalty is unfamiliar with the concept “Boris Johnson”. This is actually a simple story: man with no ideas is too terrified to sack his ideas man. So here we are. Cummings stays, and only irresistible external events will make Johnson do the right thing. He is not himself capable. We have the highest death toll in Europe, we left the care homes to their fate, our test-and-trace blunders are an international embarrassment, and we didn’t even save our economy. Johnson takes daily runs, but appears only once or twice a week in a crisis to fail at leadership.
In conclusion, the Prime Minister and his second rate cabinet (chosen for their Brexit views rather than their ability) are doing untold damage to the standing of the UK, both at home and the rest of the World. Through their actions, they have completely lost all moral authority, distracting from the government’s public health message at this important time (launch of contact tracing and quarantine project “Test, Track and Trace”).
De Gaulle was his own man. He was a French military officer, writer, statesman, architect of the fifth Republic and President of France. He may have had advisers, He became unpopular, but he was a strong leader with a mind of his own.
Britain’s standing in the World has been much diminished by this episode, which is particularly important in terms of Brexit, leaving the European Union at the end of the year, and making our own way in the “new normal” World.