Nothing much was added to the nation’s understanding by Dominic Cummings’ bizarrely long press conference. But this was never really about a breach of lockdown, whether its spirit or its letter.
If Cummings had simply apologised for flouting the rules, he probably wouldn’t have faced Tory MPs calling for his resignation. People who suffered the greatest hardship – such as losing a loved one without being able to say goodbye – would, of course, have been dismayed. Everyone else would have thought of their own misdemeanours and shrugged it off. Few of us enjoy being the world’s scold. Lockdown is such a freak event that nobody really relishes policing it (not even, I suspect, the police). “One rule for them, and another for us” is, naturally, an insult, but it’s a pretty familiar one.
The real scandal is what’s happened since – a display of collective dishonesty from the most senior members of government that has amounted to a kind of verbal violence against the electorate. In the immediate aftermath of the story, cabinet ministers trotted out to defend the adviser without even having been granted the honour of a conversation with him, as though he were a prince, or a god. Grant Shapps was appointed gaslighter-in-chief, explaining calmly that the rules we thought we had understood because they really couldn’t have been clearer were actually quite nuanced and complex, and we actually hadn’t understood them at all.
The prime minister taught us all about the meaning of fatherhood. The attorney general schooled us on the law, without any of its pillars – evidence, transparency – in place. The less intelligent of the minsters couldn’t even remember from one tweet to the next whether poor Dom was supposed to have symptoms or not, and when.
It was a painful demonstration partly because we’d thought ourselves embarked on some collective project to fight this pandemic, only to find ourselves treated not as compatriots but as idiot minions. More than that, though, with the outright lies, the obfuscations, the assertively meaningless statements, the excruciatingly weak excuses, it’s been an assault on the intelligence of the public. “Frightening” is a strong word, but it would be a grave mistake to accept this with equanimity.
We’re in danger of descending into what the psychotherapist Aaron Balick once described as a “hysterical emotional response” – venting our anger in public without any intention of doing anything about it. “A hysterical emotional response is when you’re having too much emotion, because you’re not in touch with the foundational feeling,” Balick explains. “An example would be office bitching. Everybody in the office is bitching and it becomes a hysterical negativity that never treats itself; nobody is taking it forwards.” We’re in exactly that position, where there is so much wrongdoing, so much plain nonsense, that we circle it endlessly, castigate it relentlessly, but we can’t see our way past the authority of those responsible, and can’t see any way of acting on our anger.
We are right to be alarmed. This stage of the crisis is only the start. A series of profound economic shocks will certainly follow. The coming challenges will demand the greatest possible social cohesion, and a government that lies is corrosive to such a thing. Never mind the huge question marks around competence – will we even have a working track and trace system by the second peak? – it lacks any respect for the principles of government by democratic consent.
New details keep surfacing to fuel the furnace of our distrust: it appears that one of Cummings’ first acts upon returning to work from Durham, was to go back and alter his blog, to make it look as though he’d warned about coronavirus back in 2019. This was naturally part of his flaccid defence on Monday: how could anyone accuse him of not taking the crisis seriously, when he’d warned about it a year before anyone else?
There will always be some new scandal: Boris Johnson is a known liar. Cummings believes himself to be so intellectually superior to those who would question him that he is effectively above scrutiny. The cabinet has so far provided no natural braking mechanism to the runaway bullshit – and we shouldn’t expect it to, since it was selected for subservience.
It would be very easy to succumb to “hysterical emotion” at this point and lose touch with the foundational feeling, which is that we need a new government. We cannot sit this one out until 2024. We cannot navigate a depression, and Brexit, and an uncontrolled virus, through the fog of flagrant dishonesty. We do not have four years to get our ducks in a row.
Cracks are appearing, not just within the Conservative party, but among its cheerleaders and natural allies. They will heal, no doubt, but equally inevitably, they will open up again with the next assault on public trust. It may not be obvious today how to bring down a government in the middle of a crisis, but that has to remain the objective, and all activity and critique must build towards it. Otherwise Cummings is just toying with us – strengthened by the impotence of our anger.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist