The divisions of the Brexit battles have resurfaced during the Dominic Cummings coronavirus row. Brexit had largely disappeared from the public spotlight during the pandemic. Those divisions had been put on the backburner. By refusing to understand why the public are angry about Cumming’s actions and accepting such double standards, Boris Johnson has chosen to blow off the lid of national unity. The loosening of the lockdown restrictions could have been a moment of political agreement. The prime minister is instead squandering vital political trust and generating new divisions and resentments with his mishandling of the lockdown easing.
The prime minister has been determined to stand by his man. The man who split the nation with his Vote Leave campaign has provoked an outpouring of national fury by breaking the lockdown rules. No other political advisor has ever had so much sway over Number 10 Downing Street. From his spearheading of the 2019 Tory general election strategy or the forcing of Sajid Javid out of the treasury, Dominic Cummings is the key power behind the Johnson throne. The fact half-a-dozen cabinet ministers put their neck on the line, perhaps against their better judgement, for the PM’s top advisor demonstrates his influence over this Tory regime.
The coronavirus lockdown gave Britain respite from the Brexit divisions. The coming to light of the Tory government incompetence – around ventilators, PPE, and testing kits – rightly led to a more vocal opposition, although a responsible one. Nothing since the Brexit battles has caused so much anguish and argument as this week’s decision to keep Cummings in post. It is, after all, reasonable to expect those who govern to follow the rules they create. After winning the 2019 general election, the PM said, ‘Let the healing begin’. Placing his closest advisor above and beyond the rules undermines Johnson’s One Nation oratory and erodes national unity. It has angered many who have made such huge sacrifices.
Johnson’s confused messaging is fostering new resentments and divisions during the lockdown easing. The government’s introduction of fuzzy or blurry lockdown restrictions to secure some autonomy in their interpretation is good for individual freedom. However, publicly pushing the spirit of the rules is understood to be a breach of our collective responsibility. A new division is consequently arising during the age of social distancing. With the rule breakers on one side and rule takers on the other, it is between those who operate within the restrictions and those who don’t. Differing interpretations of the guidance and the phenomena of lockdown shaming has generated conflict between neighbours, friends and families across the country. The great thawing of self-isolation may have arrived, but the Cummings saga has only spurred the lockdown finger pointing.
The government’s mishandling of the lockdown easing risks triggering a revolt against its own guidance. The PM’s double standards has encouraged lockdown rule breaking and given rise to a sense that the lockdown rules no longer apply. The incoming ‘track and trace’ system will ask people to self-isolate during the peak of summer and when their friends and family will be barbecuing and bat and balling in the park. This was not a time to squander high levels of public support. Not least because, as the R hovers around one, there is little room for the government to manoeuvre with the opening of the economy.
Dominic Cummings is here to stay and the PM’s relationship with the general public has been damaged as a result. This media storm has chimed with those who had previously strongly supported the government’s efforts. Johnson has dismayed many within his own party and gifted the opposition and nationalist leaders a political stick to give him a beating with. At a personal level a great many onlooker would forgive Cummings’ action as a father and consider his account plausible, but we hold our politicians to a higher standard. The prime minister falsely pledged to heal the country. He has instead further divided the country with the Cummings fiasco – and it was entirely avoidable. As Britain starts its journey back to normality, the government’s mishandling of the lockdown easing has reopened the Brexit-era wounds.
Tom Wilkinson is a PhD candidate specialising in post-colonial India in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. He teaches courses on the history of US foreign policy and on the transition from empire to independence in the extra-European world. Tom has previously been a visiting research scholar at Columbia University in New York and Jawarharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Before commencing his doctoral research, he worked as a Parliamentary Assistant in Westminster and as a teaching assistant in New Delhi for the British Council. He tweets @tomwilk0