En route to the Serpentine with Fiona for a swim this morning, I was stopped in Hyde Park by someone who introduced himself as a civil servant. He worked for one of those ministers who had yesterday tweeted out their support for Durham Dom as part of ‘Cabinet Operation, Nodding Dog Obedience.’ (CONDO, not to be confused with COBRA, to which Boris Johnson gives far less attention, and would certainly not disturb his weekend).
‘Keep going,’ he said, referring to my attempts to expose the charlatans in power under Chief Charlatan Johnson and Deputy Chief Charlatan Cummings for what they are. ‘However bad you think these people are,’ he added, ‘believe me, they are a lot worse.’
As I found when working in Downing Street, the civil service across Whitehall and beyond is full of basically decent people, some a bit low energy maybe, some truly exceptional, the majority good loyal people dedicated to the country and to their work. For political animals like me, it is sometimes hard to understand how you could work one minute for a Tory, the next a Labour minister, but good civil servants can, because they are able to separate politics from policy, personalities from ideas, and without that our system would not properly function.
So when I asked this guy how he coped with ‘these people,’ if they really are that bad, he said he might one day decide to give it up, but until that day, ‘I just have to get on and help the best I can.’
It is a story I hear pretty often; that the government under Johnson doesn’t really function as most imagine that a government might do, even those who work inside it; that civil servants are exasperated at the low standards of much of the work of special advisers and ministers; that basic decencies and respect for the civil service are largely absent from ministers and their political advisers; that few of those ministers have made much effort to get political and non-political advisers to work together; that the ones who do are seen as ‘a bit soft,’ because it means they are not buying into the Brextremist fantasy that the civil service is riddled with Remain plants and infiltrators; and, as the Foreign Office discovered when Johnson was there, they are not terribly interested in the detail of the big issues and challenges facing the country and the world.
Today was something of a rarity for Johnson. Working on a Sunday; and facing, though not answering, questions. He was, he told the country, ‘so determined’ to come and answer the questions about Cummings, and put at rest any suspicions people might have that there was one law for them and another for the people who had put them in power. If only he had been ‘so determined’ at defeating the virus.
There were several low points, but among the lowest … the suggestion that Cummings was motivated in travelling to Durham not just by his paternal instinct, but to stop the spread of the virus; and the observation that it was some kind of nationalist free for all around the world that led the UK to have a shortage of PPE … it was, in fact, that we were woefully unprepared and that as other countries stepped up, he went off on not just one but two holidays and when he finally came back it was to shake hands at rugby matches and in hospitals, and wonder what all the fuss was about.
People would not perhaps mind this recent episode so much if they felt that we were being well led, by an honest, hard-working, dedicated leader with his heart in the right place, and that he was surrounded by effective, capable, competent ministers and advisers, together ensuring that all that needed to be done to get us through the crisis was properly being done, most people would not give a damn about Dom.
But millions do not feel that. They feel this is becoming a total shit show, and many more have died than should have done because neither Johnson nor his Cabinet or advisers are up to the task in hand. Add to their deathly arrogance and incompetence the lying, the hypocrisy and the sense of an elite that believes there is one law for them and another for the people who elected them, and you have a political meltdown in the making. If it sweeps this bunch of liars and chancers away, it cannot come a moment too soon.
Johnson’s hope now is that the media will tire of answering the same questions and covering the same story, and the public will lose interest too. I think they underestimate just how much this has cut through. There is barely a person in the country who has not been able to do things they want to do, and see people they want to see, but who have not done so, because they are decent law-abiding people who think in a time of crisis you should listen to and follow government rules. To see Johnson defend someone who has not done that, purely because he works for him, is viewed widely as obscene.
He thinks he can get away with it because he will hide away again now, there is no PMQs this week, and he hopes that if it is a nice day tomorrow, people will be more interested in enjoying the Bank Holiday than worrying about whether or not Cummings went to Barnard Castle.
But never underestimate the power of the concept ‘Lions led by donkeys.’ It emerged from the First World War, where incompetent and indifferent generals – the donkeys – were blamed for the deaths of so many young soldiers – the lions.
From Johnson down, the government has sought to make Covid their big war, with the talk of heroes and frontlines, resilience and resolve. faux Churchillian addresses to the nation. Plenty of heroes have died on the frontline, and thousands more have died elsewhere because the ‘generals’ in Downing Street got so many of the big calls wrong.
To them, politics is a game. It’s about what you can get away with. Who you’re friends with. The tragedy is they were elected having conned the public into thinking they would stand up for the people against an ill-defined elite. They are the elite. They have contempt for people, and contempt for truth.
Democracy dies in darkness. That is why people, to coin a phrase, have to stay alert, to the real danger of what is happening. Look at how quickly Trump has debased American politics. Look at how quickly Orban has destroyed Hungary’s reputation as a genuine democracy.
Some of the reasons I worried about Johnson getting anywhere near power were played out live on national TV, and followed around the world today … he is a liar, he is a hypocrite, he is someone devoid of public or private morality, he is an elitist who believes rules are for the governed not the governing. I was not remotely surprised he stood by Cummings. Indeed, I wrote yesterday, that he would not sack him, precisely because they are both liars, both hypocrites, and because he is so incompetent as Prime Minister.
I disliked a lot of what Margaret Thatcher did as a politician. But I didn’t despise her. I disagreed fundamentally with a lot of what she stood for. But I never felt ashamed to be British when I saw her in action. I felt ashamed to be British today, and fearful of what we will become, unless people really wake up to the reality of ‘these people,’ and the fact that, as that civil servant told me this morning, however bad you think they are, they are far worse.
I agree with every word of your article. It is scary indeed to feel that given all this country is going through, we have this buffoon as a prime minister with such a grotesque person as his chief adviser and members of the cabinet sacrificing their own integrity to defend Cummings. How the families of the tens of thousands of people who have died feel listening to Johnson and Cummings I can only imagine.
None of my family have had this virus yet (touch wood) but I am longing to see them and hug my grand children who I have not seen for 2 months….and some of them live only 11 miles away! Now that we have a decent leader in the Labour party, 2024 cannot come quickly enough so that we have at least a chance of getting rid of this lot.
I feel exactly the same as you – sickened and utterly ashamed to be British by Johnson and his ‘old boy’s club’.
But what can we do? I will continue to Tweet my feelings, write to my MP and vote for a better future. I will also continue to bring up my children to believe in the importance of honesty, integrity, hard work and being supportive of each other. I will continue to try to promote these views in my work as a teaching assistant. But how on Earth do we fight against such a self-serving, self-opinionated and entitled group of people such as Johnson and his cronies? They consider that ‘normal’ people such as me and my family are simply pondlife to be controlled. I don’t actually think it’s not about political party allegances, rather it is about treating everyone decently as people who have value.
Alastair , my daughter has a very senior Civil Service position in Whitehall and she’d echo what your chance encounter told you. She did at one time work for Michael Gove but now has another secretary of state. After she’s described to me in great detail the disempowering of ministers I asked her recently what the function of a minister now is. I was curious. She replied “puppets” . Yesterday that became abundantly clear to all of us and she said she was “this has made me more furious than anything else in the whole history C-19 ” Please please carry on your campaign. For the sake of us all, the country, the government and those senior civil servants who are putting up with so much **** from above.
The media is quite rightly pursuing Cummings for breaking lockdown rules. But for me there is another question. On March 30th the news was widely reported, citing Downing Street sources that Cummings was self isolating with Covid19 symptoms at his home. He was already in Durham. Did the Prime Minister’s office knowingly lie in their press briefings and if, as Johnson said today, Cummings behaviour did not break the lockdown rules, why did they lie?
Yes, quite; and it’s so desperately sad.
Embarrassing, disappointing. Even depressing and it – the way we’re being led by gas-lighting liars – will define us, whether we like it or not.
Both to the outside world and personally on a human level as many of us can’t get past it.
We don’t want to believe that the new normal is some Alice’s rabbit-hole of contradictions where the truth is subsumed to some ill-defined, populist fantasy and where honesty is for fools, hard work for other people.
But that seems to be where we are.
Indeed, we appear to be in some sort of parallel universe. Having attended comprehensive schools in Hull, I was labelled an Oxbridge elitist by one of our more flamboyant, half-billionaire public school businessmen in print because I disagreed with him on Brexit.
That surprised & confused me but for him it was job done. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good slur and nary a moment’s thought for the implied hypocrisy.
Anyway, I’m an accountant. Not a million miles from the civil servants that you sketch here. We’re the financial scientists. Bean-counters. Dull, but, by and large, we know what we’re doing, and we don’t grandstand. We probably couldn’t do that to save our lives, but it strikes me that a strong work ethic & the ability to run things is becoming strongly negatively correlated with political success.
Contrast Mrs May and Mr Johnson. Why work 18hrs a day when you can have a few snappy slogans and a big red bus?
I just hope that one day we’ll wake up. I’d take any one of our last eight or nine PMs over this one in a heartbeat.
Little error to correct “It’s about what you can get away it”. Missing the “w’it’h”.
Keep at it and we will sink these bastards.
God bless you Alistair for trying to expose this shower of shit. I’ve sent exposee medical material about the thousands of needless lives lost to Sir Keir Starmer – lord knows if any of it actioned. May your glass be forever full but your jam jar empty. Take care
Mr Campbell, I proffer a suggestion. All this “caring father” is tosh: Mary looked like she might have covid. Dom knew he would have to isolate if they lived together. Solution to “this very complex situation” _ he s the head strategic planner for goodness sake how complex was this problem???- get the family to Durham, leave then there, get back to London. He s in an empty house so he does ,not need to isolate and can carry on going to work because he is “so important.”
He develops symptoms , so his plans were scuppered – emerge the caring father routine!
I leave that thought with you – a tissue of lies based on an intention to deceive and totally flaunt the rules.
Sums up how I personally feel perfectly.
pot calling kettle black you old lefty has been
THANK YOU . I have been explaining to my friends and family what type of a person johnson (small j) is since before and after the election. You have done what I cannot do, that is speak to the nation. THANK YOU.
I saw you on the BBC earlier and you mentioned that he was claiming exceptional circumstances for his trip to another household that was not his own during lockdown. As a father of three under 10 that had to isolate with both parents having symptoms I had to look this up as cannot remember reading this and now still can’t find, especially where related to childcare. Some information on the BBC site details Jenny Harris from the weekend where such exceptional circumstances can be running out of medicine or if a child needed to breach lockdown because parents couldn’t look after. I do not see this application here as you also alluded.
When both my wife started experiencing symptoms we kept the children from school and isolated as required and read all the guidance we could at the time. We planned for the kids if we were to get worse and even had the talk if something happened to both of us. People were asked to come for the kids if required and all agreed – have a few bags packed, etc. – be prepared. Luckily the symptoms were mild and felt nothing more than a mild RTI (where I’ve had a lot worse) so we don’t even know if it was Covid or not. We did not run away, we stayed at home, we followed the rules.
How foolish we were. What bad parents we were not to act on instinct instead. What bad parents we were for not going somewhere else better than our own home to isolate. How poor is it that our children and not worth as much as Mr Cummings. We are ashamed.
I listened to the Press Conference and I picked two things up he said and each one twice. I hope that you can use, if you agree, to back up the fact that there was no exceptional circumstances if ever asked or interviewed later.
He claimed this exceptional circumstance that allowed him to breach the lockdown rules because he had a small child. When asked about the “letter” of the rules by one reporter her quoted the guidance back to him to demonstrate how smart and correct he was being. I remembered this wording when he said it (and repeated again later) as had read when isolating. This is word for word exact in two places in the guidance, one under the self isolation section and the same paragraph in the guidance where grandparents, parents and children live in the same house, which does not apply to him.
So he is quoting directly from the self isolation section which applies to those self-isolating with COVID symptoms (I always look at the application for statutory documents when reviewing):
If you are living with children
Keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.
What we have seen so far is that children with coronavirus (COVID-19) appear to be less severely affected. It is nevertheless important to do your best to follow this guidance.
When I was isolating I read this and interpreted that it meant nat all the measures in the guidance, i.e. in the self-isolation section, would be possible when isolating with children, so when both of us with symptoms, we did not apply those measure about keeping to one room and separating as impossible We kept washing hands and sterilising but we still hugged the kids and picked them up as you can’t not do this. I can imagine this paragraph was even more relevant to younger children or even babies as you can’t not touch, especially if you were a single parent. What I did not interpret was that this paragraph he has quoted in his defence applied to the most fundamental part of the guidance in this section, which stated that you should stay at home and that he could use the children part to not stay at home. He even used a part from the staying at home paragraph, again a confirmation he was applying this self-isolation section in his actions, as it states when staying at home, not to use taxis.
If we are to solely then apply the guidance in the self-isolation section, as he would have appeared to have done then we need to basically confirm then if this section and guidance did apply to his circumstances.
His wife was sick it was reported, she had a sore head and vomited. Now I’ve drank 10 pints on a Saturday night and woke up the next morning with a sore head and vomited and it wasn’t Covid. This is perhaps just a tongue in cheek example as I have had a few vomiting bugs because of having young kids where nurseries are a breeding ground and young kids, same age as theirs pick up everything and pass on. The point here is that what she described was not the listed Covid symptoms listed on the guidance (dry persistent cough and fever) that, if experienced, required self-isolation. He rushed home and even returned to work afterwards so cannot have been Covid or he would have had to isolate as well and not be able to return. He confirmed this twice in the press conference where he stated that his wife did not have any Covid symptoms at the time they left London and listed the two from the website that she did not have. He also confirmed that he had no symptoms until after they left London and the child took ill also after they left London.
If no one then had any of the symptoms listed on the guidance then why did they leave London. As they did not then they, according to the guidance, did not need to self-isolate at that point. If they did not need to self isolate at the point they left London to go to another household, then the section of the guidance for Self-isolation did not apply to them and they could not use and twist the above paragraph about children and claim exceptional circumstance and that he had behaved reasonably and legally. As this did not apply to three persons with no Covid symptoms they did act illegally by not staying at home and travelling such a distance to another home.
If he had got sick and then became incapacitated then that’s when any exceptional circumstance may have been required but it was never the case or even required because, the guidance also states that most people with have only a mild case and why we were confident and followed these rules when we isolated and planned for something worse in case it happened, which never did, as they also experienced.
I honestly believe he just simply ran away to his safe place and not really about the child. He mentioned that everyone at No.10 was getting the virus and when he got home that night just ran away. I read an FT article from last year where he had mentioned that he could quit any time and not bothered about this job and was happy to retreat to his “bunker” in Durham. Perhaps this is where he just felt most safe but still no reason for someone who help draft the rules to then break them when so may have sacrificed.
I heard these things being said as I listened to that debacle yesterday and was actually shouting at my TV for a journalist to ask a decent question but no one did and we still have more questions than answers and I did not believe that most actually wanted to rock the boat too much and ask an hard question. So I send my thoughts to you instead and maybe this question might get asked.
Keep up the great dialogue and in acting as a conscience for those in our country who care. I’m dual nationality Australian/UK and always felt (with only a very few exceptions) that Australian politics lacked finesse and transparency but what we see at present in the UK is embarrassing and criminal and will bring us to our knees. All for the very wrong reasons. Be the lone voice Alistair but continue to be truthful and brave. We need you!
There must have been some of ‘these people’ in power in the Blair years too? Serious question; which of your books touch on this aspect? I’d like to read about it.
Apologies, this was not meant to be an unhelpful question or a difficult one. I take no reply to indicate that it has been viewed as too difficult. I had an interest in reading about such things from someone who was there. That is all.