HOW did Dominic Cummings, a man who was so sure-footed in his reading of the British public during the Brexit campaign, misread the same public so badly when it came to the lockdown?
Mr Cummings was widely credited, by friend and foe alike, with being the political genius who masterminded the victory of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum. He did so against the odds, using unconventional systems to target voters — by playing on fears of Europe’s being flooded by Turkish migrants, falsely promising “£350m a week for the NHS”, and skilfully exploiting the resentment of the large sections of the population who felt that they had been left behind, politically and economically, for decades.
Resentment, too, has characterised the reaction of the public to the revelation that he bent the rules on lockdown to protect his own family. Tory MPs have received hundreds of emails of what one of them called “white-hot anger” at the news.
Why did Mr Cummings not see this coming? Perhaps because this new sense of outrage is rooted in something different. With Brexit, this modern Machiavelli was playing to the darker angels of our nature, which thrive on base instincts such as fear, greed, and self-delusion. It seems that he knew how to manipulate those. But this week’s flood of righteous indignation is rooted in an entirely different set of values.
What has bound the public together during lockdown is something that is obvious to me from the conversations that I overhear when my neighbours pour on to the streets to applaud the NHS every Thursday at 8 p.m. There is a shared sense of care, compassion, and community — of neighbourliness, fellowship, and solidarity — the virtues that speak of the better angels of our nature. Mr Cummings violated those values when he put the interests of his own child ahead of the interests of everybody’s children.
So many others have not done that. They have not visited aged grandparents in care homes, or held the hand of a dying parent. They have excluded themselves from family funerals. One 13-year-old boy died alone because his parents obeyed the rules to stay away.
The British people made all these painful sacrifices in order to do the right thing to save others. They put the common good before selfish individualism — and they feel that Mr Cummings spat in the face of this. The more detail that he added to his account in self-justification, the more outraged people felt.
That was clear from the anguished accounts on social media. “I went against my instincts and watched my father’s last hours battling cancer via WhatsApp instead of being by his side,” one wrote, who added, after the Cummings revelations: “I let my father down.” Another wrote: “When Mum cried on the phone with loneliness I didn’t run to her. When she died in Ayr hospital, I wasn’t there. No I don’t hate Cummings, I hate me.”
Mr Cummings, with his legal loopholes and rule-rewriting, desecrated the dignity of ordinary people’s sacrifices. That’s what he appears, for all his cleverness, to lack the empathy to understand. And the succession of shameless Cabinet ministers who have sought to defend him have denuded this Government of its moral authority.
Podcast: Paul Vallely and Angela Tilby discuss the Dominic Cummings’s story and the bishops’ reactions