42. Move on, Nothing to see here

Peter Burke

Chair of Oxford For Europe

2 June 2020

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Move on, Nothing to see here

While people forgive their leaders a great deal – often far too much – there is no forgiveness for that terrible moment when you realise that the anguish you have endured for the greater good was, to those in authority, just a mark of your credulousness and inferiority.

Fintan O’Toole

“Boris Johnson is the prime minister. What did they expect? Send in the clowns, and you wake up in a circus”

Una Mullaly

There will be things that the UK government has got right in managing the covid pandemic, but at this point in the proceedings it is hard to identify what those are.

Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor, British Medical Journal

‘I know that you’ve asked Chris and Patrick, but I’m going to interpose myself if I may, and protect them from what I think would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question. I think it’s very important that our medical officers and scientific advisors do not get dragged into what I think most people would recognise as fundamentally a political argument, if that’s all right Laura’

Boris Johnson to Laura Kuenssberg, silencing his two expert advisers on the Cummings question.

Boris told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes
His desk, which from it’s earliest youth
Had kept a strict regard for truth
Attempted to believe each scoop
Until they landed in the soup.
The moral, it is indeed,
It might be wrong but it’s a damn fine read.

Written by the press corps during BJ’s days as a journalist in Brussels

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‘It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt’

Boris Johnson is right. He is right that we need to focus on dealing with the pandemic and not be distracted by the issue of Dominic Cummings. The only way this can happen is by the Going of Cummings, which is now long overdue. His original offence may have been trivial, but it was definitely an offence, and his failure to apologise or show any degree of insight has become the real story. It beggars belief that at his press conference, in, of all places, the Rose Garden in Downing Street, he admitted, in an obviously legally crafted statement, to most of the accusations which had been levelled against him, but never once apologised. He tried to use an exception clause which was designed for people who are subject to domestic abuse, and did so without a trace of shame.  He compounded this by admitting to two further offences of which the Mirror and Guardian were previously unaware. Firstly, that of returning to Downing St after visiting his wife, whom he knew to be ill with possible COVID-19. And Secondly driving while visually impaired. David Allen Green has subjected the Cummings statement to forensic examination and it does not come out well.

Cummings’ press conference ended, and not many people have noticed this, with him walking away smirking . This is what is known among those who study psychopaths as the “duper’s delight”, the look of satisfaction that follows a job well done. Like Prince Andrew, he really believed had had done enough. And sadly, he may yet be proven right. After all, ministers have been queuing, not only to defend the indefensible, but to pretend that he is completely blameless when they themselves know better, and so does the public. By doing this they risk forfeiting the right to be respected or even to be believed again.

Some people, in the face of the evidence, have alleged that Cummings is subject to a witchhunt. Yes, it is true that he is unpopular across the political spectrum, even among people like Steve Baker who have worked closely with him and should know what he is made of. However, it is not just that, he has exhausted all the goodwill which he might otherwise have claimed, by a career of self seeking and dishonest behaviour. It would be wrong to forget that this is the man who is still in contempt of Parliament for failure to appear before a select committee, treating our democratic institutions with distain. He is the man personally responsible for most of the lies of the Vote Leave campaign, which he himself admitted would have failed without them.

There really is not much reason to forgive Cummings for what he has done during lockdown, especially as by his behaviour he has brought the whole Government lockdown strategy into disrepute. Think alone of the phenomenal waste of police time as people who are challenged use the Cummings “instinct” defence: no wonder all the chief constables who have spoken out are united in condemning him. But far more important than this is the phenomenon which we have been witnessing over the past week of people ignoring the lockdown rules, which will undoubtedly set the scene for a re-run of the whole miserable scenario, shutdown of the economy and all. NHS staff – who are burnt out and deeply traumatised by the events of the last 3 months – are already being told to prepare for a surge in workload in July and August. Will people obey lockdown rules as carefully as they did first time around? After all that has happened? Dream on.

The expert advisors who appear beside Johnson like Tweedledee and Tweedledum must feel extremely uncomfortable. They have colluded with him by not showing international comparisons since May 9, the day that the UK overtook all other European countries in numbers of deaths to date. They remained silent when he stopped them speaking out about Cummings, on the grounds that this was a “political matter“. It most certainly goes beyond politics, it is costing people’s lives and they are remiss not to say so. This has been spelled out in this week’s BMJ.

Perhaps it is the fear that his experts will start to speak their minds has led to the latest development, the ‘reorganisation’ of the daily press conferences.

You might well ask what led to the sudden change of mind about the speed of relaxing lockdown. Was it just some red meat to throw to the Tory right and to the tabloids (who have not been kind to Cummings) to distract from this affair? Or is it about a lack of leverage in dealing with the extremists in the party who did not ever believe in social distancing, and who would not mind a few hundred extra deaths anyway?

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A distraction that worked. Were the tabloid press in on the game?

The final insult was when, on a Saturday night, it was announced without consultation, that shielding could, in effect, end. Even NHS England’s national medical director of primary care Nikita Kanani, was not expecting it. It has caused huge anger among interested parties, carers, charities, and my GP colleagues. There is no evidence that the UK is ready for this. The figures show how different we are from the other countries who have relaxed lockdown on valid grounds.

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Deaths from Coronavirus on 29 May across Europe. And instead of trying to reduce the figures, our government is going to let them rise

Two things seem certain. One is the government has parted company from scientific advice, as independent experts and even several members of the official sage group, handpicked by government, have made clear. The second is that the pace of change would not have been as it is without the Cummings affair. Dominic Raab tried to tell Andrew Marr at the weekend that we were “transitioning from level four to level three” and with every word he said his nose grew visibly. The decisions which are being made are political, not public health led, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

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Look at this table. We have 8000 new cases and a jumbo jet full of deaths per day. Do you think we are at level 4 or 5? The PM has told us the time to release lockdown is at level 3. Raab tells us, with no evidence, that we are ‘transitioning from level 4 to level 3’. So what are they playing at?

There are many important reasons why the Cummings affair cannot and will not be brushed under the carpet. There is still an ongoing media storm and many MPs, including Tories, who are unhappy . Public opinion is strongly against Cummings, and one thing we can say about the public is that they do not like being told by the Prime Minister what they are thinking or whether or not they are ready to move on. Most importantly, although it is now almost two weeks since the Cummings story broke, there has not yet been an opportunity for it to be scrutinised in parliament. An essential function of the House of Commons is to hold the government to account. This is perhaps one of the key reasons why Jacob Rees Mogg has successfully legislated to remove the right of MPs to participate from home.

This legislation is wrong on so very many levels.

The queue to vote. Other parliaments manage with electronic voting, why not Westminster?

Firstly it’s a bad example. After all BJ’s mantra was “work from home if you can, go to work if you have to”. Secondly it is illegal. MPs with disabilities, those who are shielding or who are looking after vulnerable relatives, will not be able to attend in person. This seems to fly in the face of the Equality Act. Thirdly it is unconstitutional. A decision is being made from which the MPs most affected are being excluded. It will be argued that the vote has been passed by only 424 MPs, so the outcome might well have been different had it been carried out fairly. Fourthly, it is a vote which anticipates its own outcome. If we suppose for one moment that the vote is indeed valid, the system which it introduces does not come into force until after the vote had been held, and therefore was not be operative at the time of the vote itself. Therefore the basis on which the vote was carried out is null and void. I can see no earthly reason why it will not be challenged in the courts. The Lords, after all, manage well enough with remote participation.

Watching the proceedings live on BBC parliament, open voting may in itself be a refreshing change, but it masks yet another assault on democracy.

How voting will look in future??

One of the stories that arose in the popular press last week was that Cummings had agreed to leave government in six months. This may just have been kiteflying, but it is a significant period to choose. It would take him to the point where essentially all the groundwork for a no deal Brexit would have been completed, ready for a cliff edge departure on January 1st. This highlights what his main role in government is. Not only to act as the “brains” behind Johnson, but to hold his feet to the fire and ensure that he does not stray away from the path set for him by the Matthew Elliotts of this world. There is to be no shirking, the job must be done completely and without mercy. The last thing Cummings and his like want is any prolongation of the transition.. All the more reason, from our point of view, for insisting on it. Negotiations with the EU 27 over trade in goods are still going on, just about, but there is precious little negotiation time left and hardly anything has been agreed as yet.

Please do not be tempted by the traditional brexiteer argument that in the EU everything is agreed at the 11th hour. Both sides have other things to think about at the moment and it is not only likely but almost certain that something will go wrong in such planning. Michel Barnier’s pronouncement on Sunday highlights just how big a gap there is to fill (‘The UK has taken 3 steps back‘). And, as even the Daily Express has just discovered for the first time, goods constitute only 20% of the UK’s trade with Europe. 80% is services, and this is something about which negotiations have not even yet been scheduled. If there is no extension, the best we can expect is a hasty fudge on goods and a complete collapse on services. The impact on supply chains is going to be catastrophic, with the motor and aerospace industries being unviable overnight (if coronaviruses has not already seen to that) and the collapse of agriculture and the much vaunted fisheries trade, but most importantly the City of London being unable to continue dealing with its largest market. It will leave us with no allies but Trump’s America, and of course Trump will give us the ‘best deal in history’. The trouble is, it is the best deal for him. This must not be allowed to happen. It is Cummings’ dream and the UK’s nightmare.

Witch hunt? You must be joking   

The Views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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Barnard Castle. In Durham slang, ‘Barnard Castle’ is an expression for a weak excuse.
Of course, you too would go there to test your eyesight. Wouldn’t you?