Perhaps on Sunday you watched the entire nation being lectured on what constitutes fatherly responsibility by Boris Johnson, a man who won’t even say how many children he has, and leaves women to bring up an unspecified number of them. Perhaps on Monday you watched the Guardian’s Rowena Mason being lectured in journalism by Johnson, a man sacked from a newspaper for fabricating quotes from his own godfather, and who blithely discussed helping a friend to have another journalist beaten up. Perhaps today, you heard Michael Gove tell LBC he has “on occasion” driven a car to check his eyesight.
If you did see these things, I can only direct you to the slogan flyposted all over Paris during the 1968 civil unrest. “DO NOT ADJUST YOUR MIND – THERE IS A FAULT WITH REALITY.” The term “gaslighting” is much overused, but let’s break the glass on it for the events of the past few days. As for “indefensible”… well, I don’t think that word means what you thought it meant.
Anyway. I see the latest science Dominic Cummings knows more about than you is optometry. Half an hour late on Monday afternoon – like he’s Mariah Carey and not some spad in inside-out pants – the Islington-dwelling humanities graduate took to Downing Street’s Rose Garden. There, he delivered the most preposterous address to a nation since Tiger Woods stood in front of an audience, including his mother, and apologised to his wife and sponsors. The difference is that Woods had a problem with cocktail waitresses, while Cummings fucks entire public health messages in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Also, he’s not remotely sorry.
By now, you may be dimly aware that his wife showing coronavirus symptoms saw Cummings first return to Downing Street, then embark on what we might call an Odyssean project: a heroic 260-mile quest all the way to County Durham, breaking the spirit and letter of lockdown rules he helped to write. I guess he just wanted to be a rule-maker, not a rule-taker. Then, he explained, he embarked on a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle, with his child in the car, to see if his eyes were so banjaxed that it was unsafe for him to drive. Which is … but no. I’m sorry, I just can’t with that one. Maybe later. Hopefully he’s at least nuked his car insurance premium.
Apologies for having to get tough with a guy who has always cultivated an image of himself as the Roy Keane of Westminster, even if that is like being the Clint Eastwood of the DVLA. But if Cummings and his wife didn’t know what they’d done was wrong, why would they choose to write a lengthy article last month about their virus experience – full of personal family information – which omitted all of these dramas, all of these material facts. Or as Cummings addressed these questions of what is unredeemable in the Rose Garden: “I stress to people that they should not believe everything in the newspapers.” And I stress to people that by far the most inaccurate account of the period in question was in the Spectator, bylined Mary Wakefield and Dominic Cummings. As for his querulous domestic exceptionalism, you’d think they were the first parents ever to get properly ill in possession of children. Or child, in this case. God knows, it’s not much fun. But, dare millions of us say, it is kind of what you sign up for – a reality not lost on the ICU nurse couple I heard on the radio, explaining about both of them being hard hit by Covid 19, and having to isolate with their own three children without help.
Cummings’ university history tutor once described him as “something like a Robespierre”, “determined to bring down things that don’t work”. Eleven 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. I must say I found the footage of Cummings being screamed at in his street on Sunday distinctly disturbing when set alongside his account of his family’s house having become a target for threats of violence. This is never right.
Part of what’s disturbing was the vignette of a Britain Cummings himself did much to foment: grimly polarised, reflexively aggressive and running with an undercurrent of menace. His crowning triumph – the successful campaign to leave the EU – was a masterclass of stoking and exploiting divisions, unpleasantly emotive half-truths or untruths, and evidently considered itself above the law. I wrote last year about the dangerous folly of whipping up people versus parliament narratives, and how quickly those who imagine themselves on the side of the people can suddenly be reclassified as an enemy politician. But even I would have thought it too neat, too written, for Cummings to find himself on the wrong end of his sorcery as quickly as he has been. The thing about playing to angry mobs is that eventually they get angry with you. They came for Robespierre in the end, too.
For all the draw of the Cummings character, though, 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. Or to put it in the complex intellectual terms it deserves, some street heckler once shouted at David Hasselhoff: “Oi! Hasselhoff! You’re nothing without your talking car!” Cummings is the talking car to Johnson’s Hasselhoff.
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.
This is the utter smallness of the man, and the tragedy for everyone stuck being governed by him. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the acceptance. It would be nice to think we’re not so beaten that we don’t expect better than what he’s given us. After all, lives literally depend on it.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist