Boris Johnson has seriously blown it. Usually he contrives himself to be his own worst enemy – now it seems to be Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser. In the affair of the Durham runner, a wise political strategist would have given simple advice. Prime Minister, just say sorry. Go before the cameras and declare:
“My fellow Britons, I owe you an apology. A valued member of my staff, Mr Cummings, at the early stage of lockdown, faced a family crisis, similar to that which has faced tens of thousands of other families. He and his wife realised they might both be infected with coronavirus and decided to isolate themselves in the north of England, near where they could find family help. Their predicament was understandable, but the journey was against the rules. Those involved in formulating tough policy must be the first to obey it.
“I have spoken with Mr Cummings. The lockdown we initiated in March was strict, perhaps excessively so given its blanket nature. But the rules made no exception. Mr Cummings now acknowledges that he broke them, whether in letter or in spirit. He is very sorry. He has apologised to me and is issuing a wider statement to that effect. We are sorry to all who have dutifully obeyed lockdown, often at great inconvenience and personal misery, at this clear double standard. These are difficult times for us all. We must be sensible and stick together.
“Given Mr Cummings’s contrition I have accepted his apology, and hope he can rejoin our efforts to get through this period. He is not a minister and I may consider revising his duties at a later stage, but for the time being I see no advantage in losing a trusted aide and disrupting the Downing Street command at this critical juncture. We simply must get on with charting our way forward. We fully understand public feeling, but this is my decision.”
Of course, Johnson made no such statement on Sunday. He showed not a glimmer of remorse and offered no apology on behalf of his senior strategist.
As throughout this crisis, every move has been politicised and subjected to one test – how does this make Johnson look? A stage army of inarticulate B-list ministers is put on daily beauty parade, briefed to boast, obfuscate and, above all, maintain fear on behalf of the prime minister and his government.
Public intelligence is insulted, mistakes are not analysed, risks are not discussed or assessed locally. In five minutes of radio this morning, we heard Johnson excusing Cummings, then a minister demanding a return to school, then a solemn advertisement commanding, “Stay alert … save lives.” British policy, still built around muddled government orders rather than trust and common sense, is the laughing stock of Europe where countries are further along the route of easing lockdown measures.
The contrast is glaring with other countries where experts – not politicians – lead briefings to the public on the reasons for evolving policies and the risks involved. Even in Sweden, whose approach to the pandemic has been controversial and at odds with its European neighbours, the nightly updates, including admissions of error, by the country’s health chief, Anders Tengell, have been a model of clarity and made him something of a national hero. It’s been reported that some people have his image tattooed on their arms. I do not think this is an honour Cummings will be receiving just now.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist