Even before yesterday’s announcement that the lockdown’s being relaxed, London was feeling buoyant. COVID-19 is now spreading so slowly through the capital that infection statistics plotted on a graph look set to sink to zero within weeks – and though eradication’s still a fantasy, the city’s dismantling its defences. Police tape and plastic wrap is coming off park benches and playgrounds. Smoke’s rising from barbecues. Houseboats are hosting house parties. Social distancing continues, but social confinement is coming to an end.
As if the feel-goodery called for edgier excitement, central London also saw two major car crashes. The pile-up happened in Downing Street. In response to reports that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had violated the lockdown by driving 260 miles to his parent’s farm in search of child-care options, the prime minister and his aide both staged press conferences. Though Cummings had dismissed the charge as ‘fake news’, he went on to confirm its substance in great detail. Issues arose that might one day be forgotten, from bladder control and petrol consumption to the wisdom of driving blind, but the takeaway was memorable. For my money, the pithiest assessment came from Nazir Afzal, a former senior prosecutor, who compared Cummings to a figure familiar to every criminal lawyer: ‘the suspect who creates a story around the known facts’. As though a Novichok assassin reminiscing about Salisbury Cathedral, he even explained why he’d been spotted on an excursion to a medieval tourist attraction. And like Prince Andrew, he radiated abnormal confidence. People would appreciate the truth, he was convinced, now that he’d spoken out.
If they did, it didn’t help. 71% of viewers polled just after the press conference thought Cummings had broken the law, and more than forty Tory MPs called for his departure. The reputation he’s built since Brexit as a strategic genius with his finger on the people’s pulse isn’t just mangled; it’s looking like a write-off. He’s either committed a crime, or co-designed lockdown rules so incomprehensible that everyone outside government misunderstood them.But Boris Johnson looks to have seen off the immediate threat, and that opens up a deeper mystery. He has many qualities, but loyalty and self-sacrifice aren’t among them, and his willingness to haemorrhage support for the sake of his advisor suggests deep dependency or fear. Smart political money explains it in terms of rivalry – the prime minister’s concern that his theoretical underling might back Michael Gove’s perennial leadership bid – but I prefer to imagine a darker secret. My pet hunch involves a lucrative publishing contract Johnson signed in 2015 to write a celebration of Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. Throughout February, he laid low at Chequers, skipping five COBRA meetings in a row, and I suspected even then that he was pondering The Riddle of Genius with an eye on post-Brexit laurels and his half million advance. (He has relevant experience – The Churchill Factor got churned out while he was London mayor – and his fondness for deputising and springing surprises is notorious.) In any event, the prime minister’s inaction during that crucial month is a sensitive subject. Perhaps it’ll stay that way . . .
The scepticism made more plausible by Johnson’s retention of Cummings – and the specific belief that their health advice should be discounted – could have serious consequences. As of Monday, amended regulations will authorise the re-opening of shops, markets, car dealerships and schools, and groups of up to six people will be able to gather lawfully for the first time in ten weeks. Though millions of people will welcome the implication of returning normalcy, pollsters say more than half the country is worried that the lockdown is being loosened in haste. This tension’s bound to increase, and the risks are compounded by the government’s recent launch of a ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system that the Health Secretary’s said will depend on ‘civic duty’: public goodwill, in other words. At a time when credible guidance and trust is essential, the government seems to be prioritising the prime minister’s comfort zone over the nation’s health.
That calls for reflectiveness as well as criticism though. Cummings isn’t the only lockdown violator in town, after all. I’ve certainly bent a few rules over the last couple of months, sneaking into friends’ gardens or loitering alongside acquaintances without reasonable excuse, and other people I know did worse. Only 43% of those who responded to a Daily Mail poll last week claimed never to have broken the health regulations at all. Hypocrisy at the heart of government is obviously of greater national significance (I hope), but that doesn’t make personal choices unimportant. Quite the opposite.
I happen to be feeling pretty optimistic at the moment. Though traffic jams are coming as an unpleasant shock, the routine amazements of London in the spring get me every time, and the reoccupation of pavement furniture and park lawns that’s currently under way feels like a little fiesta. But thousands of people are still catching COVID-19 every day outside the capital, and I wouldn’t yet bet on a smooth summer. Though the chance of a second wave of infections and the near certainty of an economic abyss still lie ahead, Boris Johnson has so thoroughly undermined his pandemic strategy that any effort among his ministers to promote it sounds insincere. It feels as though a gambler’s in charge, abetted by careerists and cowards. Important as it’ll be one day to recollect that, however, complaints can only go so far. We’re living in risky times, and it’s up to us to improve the odds.