He did not quite shoot people on Fifth Avenue, but he came pretty close. According to his former closest adviser, Boris Johnson and his government are responsible for the fact that “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.” And yet, so far, there are few signs that the prime minister will pay a price for the allegations of criminal, murderous negligence that Dominic Cummings sought to pin on him. On the contrary, his approval ratings are in rude good health, with the opposition limping far behind. Just as Donald Trump bragged that he could stand in the centre of Manhattan gunning people down and still not lose any votes, so Johnson can apparently survive the charge that he has the blood of innocents on his hands, levelled at him by the man who was once his most senior lieutenant.
The Cummings testimony, delivered in seven sensational hours on Wednesday, should be devastating for a sitting prime minister. To have his former chief adviser tell MPs that he was “unfit” for the job, that he had bungled and botched life-and-death decisions affecting millions, that he led a government that had failed “when the public needed us most”, should be a disqualifying event, triggering talk of resignation and motions of no confidence. That it isn’t turns on the personalities of the men involved and the current public mood, but also something deeper and more troubling about the politics of the age.
Start with the obvious: Cummings is an unreliable witness. His optometry defence for his jaunt to Barnard Castle and his breaking of lockdown rules has discredited him as a teller of truth, even in the eyes of those who didn’t mind that he won the Brexit referendum with a battery of lies. As for his target, voters bought into the rumpled chaos of Johnson long ago, accepting that he’s not a details guy but a chap who prefers to wing it: those low expectations help muffle the impact of the Cummings charges.
The mood is forgiving, too. The vaccine programme is the key factor, the rise in Tory poll numbers coinciding with the rise in jabs. It’s hard to rage against government incompetence when you’ve just had life-saving fluid injected into your arm. As the sun comes out, people are desperate to have a good summer, and part of that is the strong desire to draw a line under, rather than relitigate, the horrors of the past 15 months.
Besides, there is some sympathy for those who had to make the tough calls in early 2020. When ministers say a global pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that even the scientists were unclear and inconsistent in their advice back then, plenty of Britons are ready to accept that Johnson and his team did the best they could.
It’s why, incidentally, Labour and other opponents of the government should focus on the PM’s much less forgivable failures in the autumn, when scientists were screaming for a swift lockdown while Johnson put his fingers in his ears, apparently preferring to consult a DVD of Jaws, looking for the bit where the mayor keeps the beaches open. It’s also why they should highlight more recent errors, such as the inexplicable delay in putting India on the red list, and the mistakes that are still being made even now, in real time, allowing, for instance, airport arrivals from green list countries to mix freely with those from more dangerous ones.
Still, there are deeper explanations for the absence of consequences for Johnson, despite all the evidence of culpability. Two shifts in our political culture have played a part and, as irony would have it, Cummings was central to both of them.
The ex-adviser’s outrage in the committee room rested on the assumption that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, and that it is wrong to traffic in the latter. His grievance against Matt Hancock, for instance, was that the health secretary had, according to Cummings, lied on multiple occasions. And yet, much of our politics is now conducted in a context of post-truth, in which not only is lying tolerated but the very idea of verifiable truth is deemed elusive, if not quaint, lost in a fog of deliberately confected doubt and confusion.
That climate has many fathers, but among them is one Dominic Cummings, who put £350m on the side of a bus knowing it wasn’t true, happy that rebuttals would only ensure the false number got repeated, thereby helping sear the lie into the public mind. Those who watched Cummings appeal to truth on Wednesday were right to note that if truth has lost its purchase, it’s partly thanks to an environment nurtured by Cummings himself – not least by getting a serial liar elected to Downing Street.
The second shift is in attitudes to competence. The old political rulebook held that voters might forgive a government that was cruel, but not one that was useless. And yet voters often reward other qualities – likability, authenticity, charisma, vision – ahead of pure technocratic ability.
That has become truer still in the age of populism, which often disdains governmental competence as a trait associated with a hated bureaucratic elite. Donald Trump slashed and burned his way through institutional Washington and its accumulated expertise, and his supporters cheered him on as he did it. Never forget that even after his terrifyingly incompetent handling of Covid, Trump received 74.2m votes, a huge increase on his 2016 tally.
It seems plenty of voters prize other qualities above competence, chief among them the sense that their favoured candidate truly represents them and their camp in the ongoing culture war – regardless of how well or badly they might run the country. Cummings knows that better than most. His loathing of the civil service, of the bureaucratic “blob”, was unbounded. And he helped get Johnson elected by presenting him as a tribune of Brexit nation, not as a capable head of government.
If Cummings is disappointed that his Wednesday fusillade has not yet felled his old boss, he might reflect on why. It could be that he himself helped cement the very culture of lies and denigration of expertise in which his patron flourished – and in which the country’s defences against a vicious disease were so fatally eroded.