Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Boris Johnson has previously lauded the effort and sacrifice of the British people, who for nine weeks of lockdown have endured not only inconvenience and discomfort, but hardship and in many cases real sacrifice: of desperately needed income, of the opportunity to support struggling relatives, see dying family members, or attend the funerals of loved ones. Now it emerges that the rules are optional for the prime minister’s friends. The stated message was: “Stay at home”. The unstated: “Do as we say, and not as we do”.

The breach of rules by Mr Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings, revealed by the Guardian and the Mirror, is not an abstruse Westminster affair involving complicated financial dealings, or arcane parliamentary regulations. It is a matter that everyone understands and in which everyone has a stake, because everyone has given up something they valued and many have paid dearly. People feel not just indignation, but rage.

It is possible that Mr Cummings acted legally, as the prime minister has insisted. But it is certain that he did not act either responsibly or with integrity. To praise him for following “the instincts of every father” is an insult to every parent who followed the rules instead. Mr Cummings built his power by exploiting the theme that unaccountable elites treat ordinary people as dispensable idiots. In deciding to drive to his parents’ home in Durham, after his wife fell sick, he not only demonstrated his arrogance, but may have put others at risk during any stop on the 264-mile journey.

Mr Johnson and his government have been every bit as reprehensible in shielding him. Cabinet ministers – including, extraordinarily, the attorney general and the health secretary – have lined up to defend not only Mr Cummings but his actions. They have put saving one man’s career above saving lives, by portraying the rules as nothing more than guidance to be interpreted by individuals. Why, now, should the public be expected to abide by them?

If Downing Street truly believed that he had done nothing wrong, it would not have obfuscated about where he stayed during the lockdown, nor refused to comment when the Guardian first asked about the adviser being seen in Durham. Nor would Mr Johnson refuse to address the new claims that Mr Cummings further breached lockdown rules by visiting a town 30 miles from Durham – with No 10 instead adopting the Trumpian ploy of attacking “campaigning newspapers”.

A growing number of Tory MPs have now said publicly what ministers have said privately, and what is obvious: that Mr Cummings should go. Officials usually take the fall for ministers, not vice versa. That the prime minister has abandoned his already diminished authority for an unelected figure shows that Mr Johnson feels he cannot do without him. The problem is not only what Mr Cummings has done, but what the prime minister does not do.

The worst possible course would be for the government to seek to assuage anger or divert attention by announcing or floating a premature relaxation of lockdown rules. Its advice has become increasingly muddied and confusing, and the messages defending Mr Cummings have added to the risks that others will disregard it. In one regard only its position is now clearer: as long as Mr Cummings remains in place, it is saying that lockdown is for the little people. And as long as it treats the public with contempt, it can expect that contempt to be returned.

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