The people’s pantomime

Did we spend months in misery because we couldn’t handle the truth?

Artillery Row

Will he or won’t he, did he or didn’t he – the pantomime of Dominic Cummings continues. This show has several players – a protagonist (Dom) the love interest (Boris) and a chorus of outraged journalists. There have been amusing scenes; the late arrival to the rose garden built suspense, the gory details of vomiting added shock value.

But are we, the audience – the public – enjoying the show? I’m not convinced. Most of us are angry – not at sulky government aides going for a drive, but at the revelation that we’ve all been had for fools. The real story behind the escape to Durham is not how many times he stopped to take a leak on the motorway, but that the government has been lying to us for over two months. We were told that leaving our houses would overwhelm the NHS and kill people – quite clearly this wasn’t true.

Dominic Cummings didn’t break the rules – it’s worse than that. In defence of his right hand man, Johnson said Cummings had followed the ‘instincts of every father and every parent’, that he had made a judgement call within the guidelines and he would not ‘mark him down’ for it. In other words, what the government is saying is that all this time, if we’d only read the fine print, we too could have ventured outside. What it reveals is that we haven’t been deemed mature enough to make judgement calls during this pandemic – instead, we’ve been kept cooped up like scared children for our own good.

The Cummings-haters think the biggest scandal is that it’ll inspire the plebs to take to the streets for a party

Politicians lie to the public all the time, and in a crisis we might expect to be kept in the dark more than usual. But this isn’t simply strategising. The NHS hasn’t been overrun – in fact, Nightingale hospitals are empty and people have been dying from heart attacks at home instead of calling an ambulance. Policemen have spent sunny afternoons bothering dog walkers who have stayed out longer than an hour or dying lakes black to ward off tourists. The more the peak of this virus subsides, the more we’re starting to realise that the fear and dread conveyed in the endless ‘stay home’ messaging was cooked up in cabinet briefings rather than the reality of scientific advice.

This is the real story of the Cummings affair – that this government has taken unprecedented action to limit our freedom and remove our rights, not because it would stop the virus but because it didn’t trust us to follow our ‘instincts’. And so it’s frustratingly boring to watch every journalist, commentator and talking head pore over the details of the Durham journey. Cummings lied – but let’s not pretend this is simply a moralistic crusade against lockdown breaking, otherwise Labour’s Stephen Kinnock or Ireland’s picnicking Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would have had similar treatment. No one believes that driving to test your eyesight is a reasonable thing to do – just like we don’t believe that a Remain-centric media is simply objecting to Cummings’ recent actions. The media hates him because he’s seen as the Godfather of Brexit, and for many this is a perfect chance to bring him down.

But what no one on either side of the Cummings debate will admit is that they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet – just as the government doesn’t trust its voters, the Cummings-haters think the biggest scandal of this whole affair is that it’ll inspire the plebs to take to the streets for a party. ‘This is undermining public health’ they cry on Twitter, ignoring the fact that poll after poll has shown that people have begrudgingly accepted the lockdown, want to protect one another and genuinely care about beating this virus. The alarmism from the media is really an expression of a deep-seated fear of Joe public – if the messaging isn’t right, we’ll all run riot.

None of this is new or shocking. You only need to cast your mind back to the years of Brexit betrayal to remind yourself of how little faith politicians and the media alike have in the intelligence and authority of ordinary voters. But the lockdown is starting to lift – and so all the allowances we might have made for politics seeming isolated from the people at a time of crisis no longer stand. Who cares about Cummings – it’s time to start asking some serious questions about how and why the decision to lock us up for two months was made. Have we spent the last few weeks in misery simply because the government didn’t believe we could handle the truth? Is this really the people’s government Johnson promised us, or is the people’s pantomime?

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