I once read an account of a left-wing football fan who was telling the story of the time he encountered some far-right hooligans at a match. I will never forget one particular detail that he described. At one point, the hooligans were in the stands directly above them, and while the fan and his friends looked up – helpless to move, penned in on all sides by fellow supporters, concrete walls and police – the hooligans unzipped their trousers, took out their penises, and began to urinate all over them. All over their heads, and they laughed. And the fan and his friends just had to stand there as the humiliation descended towards them, ran down their necks and shoulders along with the mockery from on high; they had to wait there as the hooligans fled gleefully into the night. The description was so vivid, the fan’s pain so evident so many years later, that I found myself almost brought to tears of rage.
Watching Boris Johnson reach a new level of disgust for the British public, a remarkable achievement given the arrogance of some of his previous deeds, I am again watching from a distance as someone high upon power relieves himself upon a crowd of unfortunates below. This time the distance is not history, but a few hundred kilometres away; but from all the way here in Germany, the rage is broadly the same. Johnson’s refusal even to discipline Dominic Cummings, his closest government advisor, for twice breaking the lockdown was not merely an endorsement of Cummings’ hypocrisy. It was far worse than that. It was an endorsement of behaviour highly dangerous to public health, as everyone now knows how serious it can be if just one person showing symptoms of Covid-19 is out and about too long: and, in fact, it was even far worse than that. Put simply, Cummings was allowed to travel around the country whilst, as noted on Twitter by the writer Sathnam Sanghera, “People. Couldn’t. Hold. Their. Dying. Children.”
It is clear that the decision to retain the services of Cummings is not in the national interest, and so the natural question is who this country’s senior leadership is working for. The answer to that now seems simple: itself. Though it may enact policies which from time to time benefit some of the British public, its first and most consistent responsibility is to itself. Johnson’s narcissistic Cabinet is so obsessed with its own reflection that it has not noticed that the fury rumbling in its direction is very different this time. It is not easily divided into political camps, as was the case with the EU referendum or the question of Scottish independence. It is a united anger, one shared by everyone who has made significant and in some cases astonishing sacrifices over the last few weeks to keep their fellow citizens safe. In those few weeks the British public have by and large followed instructions, as vague as those instructions have often been; they have had to watch their death toll soar beyond that of other countries, even though they had far more warning of what was coming: and then they have provided a great deal of sympathy and support for a Prime Minister whose own recklessness brought him to the point of death, only for that Prime Minister not soon after his recovery to climb above them onto the highest available platform, unzip his metaphorical trousers and then empty his contempt onto the helpless public below.
There are many people in Britain who will at present feel powerless to do anything, but there is so much that can be done. The first thing is to tell their local Members of Parliament, by letter or by email, just how painful and devastating and enraging this government’s behaviour has been. These letters and emails should ideally convey the same level of feeling they experienced when they first learned of what may well be the defining outrage of Johnson’s tenure. Those MPs should be asked whether they endorse the Government’s position on Cummings and if they are people of decency – as several of them have already proven to be – then their public revulsion should be added at once to the voices of countless others. They, like millions of others, will be appalled that Johnson has squandered all authority at a time when he needed it most.
The second thing that they can do is never, ever to regard this defence of Cummings as normal: it is not a mere policy decision, a dispassionate allocation of resources. It is a conscious choice of one colleague over an entire country, it is a blatant indication that this is not a Government of public servants, but one which treats the public as its servants. Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak and others cannot be allowed to forget the speed with which they leapt to Cummings’ defence. Everything they do in office from this point forward will be tainted by this disgrace.
If the last few days have shown anything, it is that whilst the upper reaches of this Government are incapable of shame they are still susceptible to pressure. We have seen this from its policy reversal over the matter of surcharges for foreign-born carers and NHS workers. Its stance on Cummings is another reversal that must happen, and soon. While this matter is pursued, there must also be close scrutiny of just why Cummings, a strikingly toxic political figure, is so still valuable to Johnson. He is clearly not invested in the health or happiness of his fellow citizens, so it seems reasonable to ask whom he is still being employed to please. All of this should take place sooner rather than later, because the British Prime Minister cannot be allowed to treat the country as his own private urinal.