Although we live in unprecedented times, there’s not much that’s new under the sun. And history tells us that as much as Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to move on from the Dominic Cummings affair, it may cast a long shadow.
After enjoying several strong weeks, public support for the government has collapsed. The prime minister’s approval rating has crashed and the Conservatives’ lead over Labour has almost disappeared. Barely half of the public now expresses confidence in the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
These might all be regarded as symptoms of the unfamiliar public health crisis we are in and its attendant challenges. The pattern of events is, however, all too familiar.
At the heart of this story are the allegations that Cummings broke lockdown regulations by driving from London to Durham and also to the beauty spot of Barnard Castle. But most important is his refusal to show any regret or apologise over his actions – and his employer’s refusal to make him. As past scandals prove, hypocrisy can be your undoing, particularly in times of crisis.
The lack of remorse from Cummings has changed not only the quantity, but the quality of the reactions. Voters are not just telling pollsters they no longer like the prime minister: thousands are writing vivid, emotional letters to Conservative MPs. They are creating a flood of facetious memes. They are protesting outside Cummings’s house.
We’ve heard that one before
And each has a familiar formula. Accusations of improper behaviour are made against a government figure, who denies them or obfuscates. When the accusations are found to be at least partially true, the perceived culprit denies their significance and attributes criticism to a conspiracy of political opponents. A hostile public withdraws its approval more permanently, seeing the offender or offenders as part of an insular, self-serving elite.
Politicians in the hot seat have two alternatives: fight or flight. Conservative ministers John Profumo, Jonathan Aitken and Andrew Mitchell chose to fight, and lost. Prime Minister John Major broke his promise to stay in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and, despite throwing his chancellor to the wolves in an attempt to save himself from blame, went on to earn his party’s lowest vote since 1832.
Tony Blair fought on over Iraq, and spent the next three years fighting for his political life, and losing. More recently, MPs accused of expenses abuse mostly fought the accusations but few fought the next election. Those who did – like the one recalled last year – usually lost.
Flight doesn’t have a much better record: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s notorious apology for backtracking on his promise not to raise university tuition fees was autotuned into a hit record and his party was savaged at the next election.
Context and hypocrisy
Johnson should be concerned about the wider context within which the Cummings furore is unfolding.
History tells us that it matters how well the public feels it is doing when a scandal hits. In the midst of economic growth and increasing public spending, the infidelities of various ministers and Labour’s receipt of £1 million from Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone while changing a policy in his favour in the first Blair government were exposed without any ill effects on the administration’s reputation. The deputy prime minister could even afford to brawl publicly with a voter at the start of the 2001 election campaign without inhibiting Labour’s popularity. In a public health crisis that looks set to cause years of economic turbulence, today’s prime minister does not enjoy such latitude.
But the deciding factor in these episodes is the perception of hypocrisy. Past scandals indicate that error is far more culpable in the eyes of the British public when the culprit is sermonising to them.
“Sleaze” scandals unfolded under the Major government in the wake of his “Back to Basics” campaign for a return to traditional social values.
The present prime minister, with a colourful personal past, never moralised while out of office. But he is held guilty of it now because he leads a government still urging others to do their “civic duty”. Cummings’s offence against “fair play” is the fatal element of today’s controversy.
The Cummings episode is reviving the passions that raged during the expenses scandal, when the public felt “they just don’t get it” and the political class cried media hysteria and refused to offer any note of humility. Johnson has insisted that the allegations against Cummings were “mostly false” and “political point-scoring”. There are times when leaders can get away with this. Our times are not those. Whatever happens, this affair has cost the prime minister dear. Barnard Castle could be the duck house of 2020.