I want to describe his trip to Durham during the lockdown as somewhere between “grossly irresponsible” and “utterly foolish”. But it is a little too easy to write him off.
This is the man who took a pile of grievances about things that had little to do with the European Union and coalesced them into a vote for Brexit — even though this will make life worse for most of those who voted for it.
This is the man who (apparently) took last year’s parliamentary stalement and Boris Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament and enabled the Tories to win a handsome majority — even though the tiny increase in the Conservative vote makes it look more like a vote against a Corbyn government than support for a Johnson one.
His Durham trip has been roundly condemned, but he’s survived. I fear that, once again, he has done something I think is foolish, but which might just work to his advantage.
Covid19 is a strange illness because many people show no symptoms, and many more don’t need hospital treatment. We are taking it seriously because of its severe effects on a minority. But there will be people suffering financially or emotionally because of the lockdown who will want — and perhaps need — to see this as an exaggeration. Occasionally in the UK, and more often in the US, people have wanted to dismiss it as “no worse than flu”. Just because that is a denial of reality doesn’t mean people are not thinking it. Cummings’ dress and behaviour seems calculated to say “the establishment is wrong” — he’s just positioned himself as the hero of people who see concern over Covid19 as “the establishment” making life difficult.
He’s given a perfect excuse to anyone wanting to break the rules, in this lockdown, or in future ones.
The government seems to have been trying to avoid creating a situation where its scientists are drawn into commenting on what Cummings did. That’s probably right, but for people frightened by the scientists’ comments, or who have “had enough of experts”, what he’s done is to sideline them.
The storm has also pushed away from the front pages the very real figures for Covid19 deaths in the UK, which are high enough to put a question mark over the wisdom of relaxing the lockdown. It’s also pushed away the complexity of talks with the EU over a post-Brexit deal and sidelined the wise politicians who are saying that we should extend the transition period rather than have the economy being badly hurt both by Covid19 and by Brexit.
We’re nowhere near the end of the Covid19 saga. Numbers will go up again as the lockdown is relaxed. Cummings has undermined the effectiveness of lockdown, so we will face more stories of very real suffering than we would have done had he stayed in London. They will help to hide bad news stories about negotiations with the EU, which were always going to be difficult, and are now also delayed. They also make easier to blame Covid19 for the very real economic damage of Brexit — especially if we leave without an agreement.
I hope I am wrong. I hope Cummings was just “very foolish”. But if I am right, the first thing we need to do is name the problem. We shouldn’t be blinded by anger at his folly the folly was a calculated ruse to hide something more sinister.