There’s something, or rather somebody, rotten at the core of the British government and John Gloster-Smith dissects the behaviour of an administration that is increasingly flouting moral and governing codes in an effort to force through its agendas.
The No 10 chief advisor Dominic Cummings’s behavior over his flouting of the Covid-19 lockdown rules exposes a fundamental flaw at the heart of the Johnson regime, integrity. Whether he keeps his job or not, and he is currently under pressure to resign, the facts around the case speak volumes for how this nationalist populist Brexiter regime has so far operated and its weakness in terms of values. It underlines a crucial point in the democratic principle of government by consent, that of trust. People will support a government if they trust it, especially in life and death circumstances such as a pandemic.
Hypocrisy at the highest levels of government
Whatever the personal sympathy one might feel for the dilemma the Cummings’ found themselves faced with, there are many up and down Britain who have similar stories to tell of the sacrifices they have made to observe the lockdown, in the interests not only of themselves but also, and it’s a related point, those of others who might otherwise suffer. It is an intertwining of personal and social, that your need is also mine. Thus a rule is employed, in this case a lockdown, where we don’t leave our homes, particularly if infected, so as not to infect others. Masses of police time has been given to enforcing it. When a senior, albeit unelected, member of the government decides that he can interpret the rule liberally to suit himself and his family, the rule is undermined. Why then should other follow the rule? If we took this to an extreme, the authority on which the pandemic is being fought is undermined. Not only that, but authority and trust in government is undermined. We are living in febrile and dangerous times and such behaviour is potentially undermining of government in, for example, managing unrest.
Johnson and his cabinet have supported him. This brings in the wider issue of the accountability of government, in this case for an unelected official. As Cummings is not elected, he has not been bound by the much-weakened principle of ministerial responsibility, whereby misdemeanours are resigning issues. Cummings has enjoyed massive power within Whitehall, one that is however dependent on the PM, which could at any moment be withdrawn if Cummings ceases to be of use, since Johnson’s premier driver is what suits his personal interests and his power. The unfortunate precedent in this crisis is that other officials have recently resigned when exposed for flouting the rules. Why should Cummings be an exception, unless it is because it is simply the matter of retaining Cummings at No. 10? When not only Johnson but the cabinet line up to defend Cummings, the whole government is drawn in to defend the indefensible.
Politics is the art of the possible
We have already witnessed Cummings in action since Johnson came to power. It was he who advised Johnson in 2019 to attempt to prorogue Parliament for an extended period and thus raised the constitutional questions of the respective powers of the Monarch and PM, of Parliament and of the Supreme Court. Cummings also master-minded the strategy of forcing an early election on “Parliament vs the People” to secure a Tory majority and ensure Brexit could happen. Cummings has forced out advisors of ministers who refused to be answerable to him. He has attacked civil servants who gave contrary advice, recommended that top people be brought from outside the service and advocated making the most senior officials politically accountable and removable. He is apparently designing a “spokes and hub system” whereby such people are controlled from what would then appear to be a more powerful inner centre in Cummings and Mr Gove in the Cabinet Office. This in turn raises questions about the growth of power being vested in a small group of people at the centre of government. In the case of Cummings, this is a person who is already disliked within the Tory party as well as outside it and the treatment of opponents, which was ruthless when the Johnson regime was being set up, has created enemies on the backbenchers who could have scores to settle.
Such changes are nothing new. These fluctuations in power have occurred before, often after a party has won a big election victory. Much has been written about Prime Ministerial power and the possibility of a PM department being created. Often the possibility of the growth of PM power has in turn been followed by opposition to it, especially within the governing party and when a government becomes less popular. Johnson’s government is now facing a lot of criticism over its handling of the pandemic and thus is more exposed. It thus gets harder to support the behaviour of errant members of the government.
Values under scrutiny
The issue of the role of Cummings also raises the question of the values of the regime, if you like its moral purpose. One principle was clearly enunciated when Johnson and Cummings took power in 2019, that the end justifies the means. Cummings made it very clear that Brexit would be pursued “by any means necessary”. This ruthlessness had already been seen in the 2016 referendum campaign, where a similar disregard for moral principle of conduct was evident, one that is still under scrutiny, for example the use of dark money, foreign interference and the breach of spending rules.
Yet this question is broader, and reaches to Johnson himself, one not noted for moral principles in his personal life or the observance of rules or codes of behaviour, as former spouses would confirm. To put it another way, the principle Johnson most firmly adheres to is that of himself, his standing in other people’s eyes, and the gaining and retaining of power. Others are retained while they serve that principle and disposed of when no longer so. Johnson adopted the Vote Leave cause in 2016 and has adhered to it since but this is not out of belief but convenience. Many have said how he wrote two articles before deciding to join the Leave side, one in favour of Brexit and one against.
While successful, Johnson may escape scrutiny over his conduct. Teflon-like, such criticism just falls off him, since he has no shame. However, in the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing depression, and the suffering in consequence, this may not necessarily continue to work for him. People can start to see through the “bluff and bluster”, the narcissistic style so often remarked of nationalist populist leaders around the globe, and ask questions of the real substance underneath. Is this man who he says he is?
The ruthless pursuit of power employed to achieve Brexit, and with it, many say, a further expansion of neoliberal and “free market” so-called reform, may have worked in the circumstances of harnessing right wing support and thus resolving the political conflict by the 2019 general election victory, but the utterly changed circumstances brought about by the pandemic and the ensuing demand for economic and social change of a different kind and order to that envisaged by the neoliberals, could yet be the undoing of this regime.
Trust is hard won and easily lost
Thus to have a deficiency in principle can turn strong leadership into a weak one as support weakens. Right now the Johnson regime is on a cusp of an upheaval. Get it right and he’ll probably survive, but a groundswell of opposition and a failure to engage people and win hearts and minds can spell an end to even a government with an 80-seat majority. It happened with Mrs Thatcher over the Poll Tax riots in 1990 and Major after the UK’s ejection from the ERM in 1992. Ironically it was disputes over the EU that finally did it for both of these people, even though Major staggered on until 1997 and a massive election defeat.
The “Get Brexit done” government is at risk of becoming associated in people’s minds with being the “Covid Government”, especially if there is, as seems very likely, an enduring depression as well as recurrent waves of Covid-19, at the same time as no deal is agreed with the EU thus further damaging trade. It took the Conservatives a long time to shake off being seen as the party of unemployment in the Labour landslide of 1945 or for Labour the party of the recession for their defeats from 2010.
There has been a string of policy failures over the pandemic by the Tories, such as the freezes or cuts in health and public-health spending under Austerity, the lack of appropriate planning, the slowness to bring in lockdown measures, the errors in strategy, problems over supply of equipment, implementation and relaxation of the measures, as we’re seeing. Given the context of continued neoliberal policies such as cuts in government, deregulation, reduction in benefits, privatisation or the pursuit of Brexit, the image that could be emerging is of a government that does not care and that neoliberal economics is prioritised over the health and welfare needs of its citizens.
It is said that a values divide in Britain can be characterised between those that value “freedom” first, who arguably were amongst that who supported Brexit, and those who value “care”. We could be about to see a shift in favour of the latter as a result of this pandemic. Trust is hard won, but easily lost.