For four years now, the world has watched agog as Donald Trump appeared to make up the rules of governance as he went along.
There have been many points along his presidential path, from pussy grabbing and bleach injecting to last week’s ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ jibe, in which ordinary sane humans have found themselves unable to fathom his electability. At those times, the puzzled disclaimer has often been “only in America”.
And then, last week, the circus of sanctimony arrived in Britain. A press conference of bumbling, incomprehensible nonsense from a privileged, pumped-up white man, held in a rose garden, kept us glued, open-mouthed, to our screens. Same story, different garden. Suddenly, the USA didn’t seem so distant.
Much has been written about Dominic Cummings in the days since he took to the Number 10 backyard to insist his visits to Durham, Barnard Castle and a seemingly very pretty bluebell wood (coincidentally, on his wife’s birthday) were merely the actions of any loving father. I won’t recount it all here, lest to say that comparisons to normal families tend to fall short when you’re defending living in a third house on your parents’ estate and taking country walks within one’s own land.
But today, as the public begins to re-emerge into the world under app-based surveillance, moving on is hard. Why should we?
A pandemic for the plebs
That Cummings rose to fame on his ability to stoke resentment of unelected officials to a referendum-winning degree is ironic. Many in Westminster suggest Johnson’s reluctance to axe his unelected right-hand man, and the unprecedented steps he’s since taken to protect him from further criticism, are down to the inordinately powerful position Cummings holds within his inner sanctum.
But his ordinary man schtick, the idea that we should welcome his injection of northerner-ness to Number 10 whether he himself was elected or not, became very hard to swallow last week. And today, despite the government’s best efforts, it remains lodged like a golf ball in our collective throat.
The repeated pleas to give Dom a break, to move on, become even less digestible in an environment in which both his defenders and his detractors seem intent on attacking the women caught up in a storm of his making.
Take our female news journalists as an example. The BBC’s Laura Keunssberg faced calls to quit when she reported, in a straight-forward manner, Number 10’s defence of Cummings. Not for the first time, she was accused of being a government stooge. But when her revered colleague, Emily Maitlis, took a different tack, calling Cummings to account in a damning Newsnight intro that quickly went viral, she too was shot down, accused of breaking impartiality rules.
Did she break them? In a statement reminiscent of the Durham Police verdict on Cummings’ movements, the BBC admits it was a mild breach. But in our current heightened climate, it is galling to see a woman sanctioned for breaking the rules by voicing what many are thinking about a rule-breaking man getting off scot-free.
A misogynistic roadmap
Does inserting gender into the debate seem opportunistic? It depends on your viewpoint. But given so many of the rules, regulations and safeguards written into our coronavirus response disadvantage women most keenly, it seems the only way women are benefitting is that we are less likely to die. Yay for us.
Dom’s “I’m just doing what any father would do” defence rested on one get-out-of-jail-free card – a protection written into the lockdown rules that allowed movement in extreme circumstances where a child was at risk. Was Cummings’ child at risk at home with two parents? That’s subjective.
But as Labour MP Jess Phillips was quick to point out on Twitter, that rule was in place to safeguard women and children stuck in homes in which domestic abuse and violence are the norm. It was not written for Cummings, or for any of the rest of us who have been stoically avoiding seeing our families, even when we’re sick, even when we’re working with children at home, even when we’re at risk of total mental breakdown under the pressure of it all.
His behaviour and the resulting maelstrom have also detracted vital attention from the many and varied issues facing ordinary people, from furloughed workers to the self-employed to those applying for Universal Credit – issues which again impact most keenly on women. From the lack of acknowledgment of maternity leave in the application of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), to the insistence the scheme will end in August regardless of further outbreaks, to the continuing woeful pay gap being exacerbated further in furlough, women are facing a raw deal right now, and small independent freelancers who live month-to-month are feeling it more than most.
According to Insight, the number of female freelancers has grown by 55 per cent since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office work has shot up by 79 per cent. They’re now facing a double hit, with lower earnings post-maternity and a lack of clarity over future support.
We also know that it is these very women who have been bearing the brunt of lockdown childcare. And while they remain unable to ‘safeguard’ their children by visiting family for childcare à la Dom, they will be continuing to do so for many months to come as schools return in a staggered, part-time form that is already creating huge anxiety and uncertainty.
Universal Credit’s “family first” approach also fails women from every angle, but most notably in its insistence that household income is considered as a whole with multiple benefits paid into one lone account. Campaigners have long shouted about the impact this has on denying those in abusive relationships the financial independence to leave – but nothing has been done to change it, and now millions more are entering that failed system. That’s to say nothing of our rising rates of domestic abuse under lockdown.
So yes, it’s safe to say that while Dominic Cummings was riffing on the regulations to suit his own family’s circumstances, millions of other ordinary families who were trying their best to keep to the rules were really struggling. Now, they feel justifiably aggrieved, and whether Boris will allow his health advisors to say so or not, many will be less likely to obey instruction as we move, snail-like, out of lockdown.
In one sense, Cummings’ breach, whether of the law’s letter or spirit, is just more of the same. A privileged white man taking liberties that are off limits to the rest of us. The difference this time is that a population stuck at home watching the news is both less willing to accept the government’s stuttering response and, crucially, more aware than ever of the issues going unattended in the ensuing media scrap.
The government can ask us all to move on. But as so many of us feel stuck, mired in financial fear, agoraphobia and anxiety, we have little room to do so. And until the government starts to show some genuine leadership, it might find we don’t really want to either.