David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
It would be hard to argue that it has been a good couple of weeks for the Government. The Prime Minister promised a ‘world-beating’ track and trace system by 1 June, but we are some weeks from it being fully operational. The Chair of the Statistics Authority has brought into question the accuracy and integrity of the Government’s test numbers. The Home Secretary has announced a quarantining policy that looks irrelevant to reducing the spread of the virus but disastrous to attempts to restore the economy. And the Leader of the House of Commons has replaced a well-functioning online voting system with something that requires MPs to queue for half an hour and, until amended, disenfranchised large numbers of MPs.
These are points I would rather not make. Throughout this crisis, I have been of the view that the Government has a tremendously difficult job to do, that all options are unpalatable, that the public understands all of this and that it is in the national interest that we get behind the Government in as constructive a manner as possible.
For my own part, on these pages and elsewhere I have argued that the Government has broadly got many of the decisions right – or, at least, where they have been in error these were mistakes that could easily be made by any government.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should have locked down earlier. At the time, Rory Stewart made the case for an earlier lockdown but I didn’t. Rishi Sunak moved quickly and impressively to establish support for businesses and employees.
As for the moves to ease the lockdown, I think the Government has been right to resist calls to abandon it rapidly, but that maintaining the toughest restrictions was unsustainable. When the Prime Minister said he wanted to take a cautious step-by-step approach to returning to some kind of normality, I was supportive.
Above all, I looked at the responsibility placed on the shoulders of former colleagues and recognised that it is much easier to comment from the side lines than it is to be the person making life-or-death decisions. My view was that Ministers should be scrutinised, but that the public understood how difficult this was.
Much of that still holds true. But something significant has happened in the past fortnight in how the Government is viewed and it is going to make it much harder in future. The benefit of the doubt has been lost and it has been lost because of Dominic Cummings.
I am conscious that, when it comes to Cummings, I can be easily dismissed as a bitter Remainer whose political career was brought to an end by his single-minded pursuit of Brexit. But it is also true that, on these pages, I have frequently praised his strategic ruthlessness, defended his attendance at SAGE meetings and, if the decision to go to Durham was made by stressed and anxious parents concerned about the well-being of their four year old son, I would not want to be too condemnatory of a well-meaning error made under pressure.
Nonetheless, the Cummings Northern Tour, and the reaction to the story, revealed (or perhaps I should say, reminded us) of five attributes of the Government that even those of us sympathetic to the Government’s plight find unattractive.
First, the arrogance. The immediate response from Cummings was to dismiss the story as an irrelevance – “it’s not about what you guys think” – when it was clear that the guidelines had been broken and an apology was in order.
Second, the lack of honesty and transparency. The Cummings story changed almost by the hour and the explanation for the trip to Barnard Castle stretches credulity. By the way, the emergence that Cummings’ 2019 blog was amended in April to include a specific reference to the threat of a coronavirus pandemic (which gave the impression that he was extraordinarily prescient) deserves much more attention.
Third, the emasculation of the Cabinet. At a time when the Government badly needs a large number of big beasts to go out and make its case for it, forcing Cabinet ministers to tweet in support of an indefensible position undermines them. Given the nature of this controversy, the Attorney-General should certainly have neither been asked nor should she have consented to do this.
Fourth, the dependence of the Prime Minister on a single adviser. It was always likely to be the case that Boris Johnson would take a slightly non-executive approach to being Prime Minister, and ill-health and family responsibilities have probably exacerbated that tendency.
But, as the revealing Danny Kruger view to his fellow members of the 2019 Conservative intake argues “BJ and DC … together is the only way to GBD, level up the regions, and fix Whitehall – the only things which will win us the next General Election”. The ‘only way’? And, as with the Vote Leave organisation, the Government is full of people whose loyalty is primarily to Mr Cummings – making him apparently unsackable.
Fifth, everything is seen through the prism of Brexit. Again, the Kruger stance makes it clear that the big prize is ‘GBD’ – Getting Brexit Done. That is what really matters above all.
I should acknowledge that every single one of those attributes was apparent at the time of the last general election when the British people gave Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority. It was a Government that had attempted to shut down Parliament, failed to justify its reasons and never apologised. It promised an ‘oven-ready deal’ in order to ‘get Brexit done’, which doesn’t entirely convey the situation in which we currently find ourselves. The Cabinet was selected primarily on the basis of loyalty to the Prime Minister. And Cummings was very obviously the leading strategic mind within the Government and his overriding objective was to leave the European Union at all costs. And it won.
The difficulty is that it is not a Government well-suited to the unexpected challenge it faces. A Government that shows humility and honesty will retain the benefit of the doubt, but that runs counter to a ‘never apologise, never explain’ ethos. The country expects the Prime Minister to be in charge and for Cabinet ministers to be competent and substantial figures. A system that depends upon immense power in the hands of one person (especially an unaccountable figure) is unsustainable when faced with a challenge of this scale. And for most people, Brexit (one way or another) is not the priority at the moment – tackling the disease is.
The national mood in recent months has been one of a coming together. The scars of the Brexit debate were beginning to heal as most of the country wanted the Government to succeed. Honest mistakes were forgiven; genuine successes celebrated. But the decision to keep Cummings in place has meant that normal politics has resumed much earlier than would otherwise be the case. Given the difficult months ahead, the Prime Minister may regret that.