The prime strategist behind Boris Johnson’s ascent to No. 10 Downing Street might just end up bringing him down.
Dominic Cummings, a back room operator who masterminded both the campaign for Brexit and Johnson’s stunning election victory in December, provoked a firestorm when it was revealed last week that he had violated Britain’s lockdown rules, driving 250 miles to his parents’ property to seek childcare for his son just before himself developing coronavirus symptoms.
Instead of addressing widespread public anger, Johnson first forced his ministerial colleagues to line up behind Cummings, then personally endorsed his aide’s actions as both responsible and legal.
Demagogues have historically offered this vision of a glorious dawn that ends a long, hard night in order to obscure their crimes and blunders. Thus, Johnson and Cummings could merrily scorn all available data and informed opinion that a Britain outside the EU would be immediately and deeply diminished
The backlash was instantaneous and bipartisan. Even the front page of the consistently pro-Tory Daily Mail read: “What Planet Are They On?” Cummings’s attempted apology did little to quell public fury.
Arguably, Johnson and Cummings are only reaping what they have sowed since the 2016 Brexit campaign. The two men had good reason to assume they had acquired immunity to the earthly tempests of ordinary mortals.
Trying to sway voters with brazen falsehoods, they were clearly emboldened when a large part of the British media consented to be mouthpieces, if not cheerleaders.
Remarkably, they managed to sell, to a majority in England at least, a dream of Britain in which the country is reborn after its liberation from European elites, unpatriotic left-wingers and rootless liberals.
Their prospectus may have always seemed bogus. But many people battered by years of savage budget cuts, which went under the guise of “austerity,” proved vulnerable to illusions of restored national greatness.
Johnson and his company were also helped by the fact that their appeal was based on the promise of a splendid future — something way ahead, like the “sunlit meadows beyond” Johnson evoked in his first major speech on Brexit in May 2016.
Demagogues have historically offered this vision of a glorious dawn that ends a long, hard night in order to obscure their crimes and blunders. Thus, Johnson and Cummings could merrily scorn all available data and informed opinion that a Britain outside the EU would be immediately and deeply diminished.
Dealing in an extravagant fantasy about a remote future, they could only have been blindsided by Covid-19 — a phenomenon that puts the future on indefinite hold and plunges everyone, the richest as well as the poorest, into a struggle to survive the present.
Bungled pandemic response
And indeed, abruptly forced to engage with reality after peddling daydreams, Johnson’s government has utterly bungled the country’s response to the pandemic. Partly due to his blithe initial attitudes, the UK death toll, which is nearing 40,000, ranks highest in Europe and is second only to the US globally.
In these levelling circumstances, when death and destruction of livelihoods are proximate and pervasive threats, any display of privilege or claim to omnipotence was always likely to be met with rage.
It is particularly intense now because for their part, the British public has obeyed, with extraordinary scrupulousness, the original directive to “stay at home” “ — much to the surprise and increasing dismay of the government, which has lately been trying to get people back to work and children to school.
Numerous stories have circulated across Britain in recent weeks of unattended funerals, unsaid farewells, lost care and affection, and pent-up sadness and grief.
Many painful individual sacrifices have been borne with the help of the collective spirit that we are all in this together — a sentiment that the government sought to strengthen with advertisements that proclaimed, “If one person breaks the rules, we will all suffer.”
Cummings and Johnson have taken a battering ram to those crucial bonds of social solidarity — and thus to their own reputations. Having cunningly fomented a revolution against unaccountable elites, they now stand guilty of the most intolerable crime of unaccountable elitism: a contempt for the way ordinary people live, grieve and die.
Circumstances, favourable since Brexit to Johnson, have now turned decisively against him. Flailing against Covid-19, the prime minister can no longer hide his mistakes by pointing to the sunlit meadows beyond; he is trapped in an endlessly grim present in which all his moral and intellectual infirmities are cruelly exposed.
Johnson’s approval ratings are collapsing. Tory backbench members of Parliament, a querulous lot, are raising their voices again; many of them want Cummings, an arrogant and meddlesome figure, gone.
And, faced with precise questioning from Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party, Johnson, who is no orator, has been floundering badly. Many years still remain of Tory government in the UK, but Johnson’s premiership looks mortally wounded.
Pankaj Mishra is a columnist and writer. His books include Age of Anger: A History of the Present
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