Dominic Cummings affair shows we’re still ‘lions led by donkeys’ – Christine Jardine MP

The British public has been doing their bit in the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, but the Conservative Government has been a disappointment to even its own supporters, writes Christine Jardine MP.

Soldiers who fought in the First World War were ‘lions led by donkeys’, some say (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Soldiers who fought in the First World War were ‘lions led by donkeys’, some say (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This past few days I have noticed a distinct shift in the public mood. From an avalanche of emails from constituents to a near unanimity in media coverage there has been a consistent thread of opinion. We deserve better than this.

At some point in the past week, the spirit which we all shared, which was expressed in those Thursday claps for carers, and which seemed to be epitomised in support for efforts of those like Captain Sir Thomas Moore has been undermined.

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Worse still, there are genuine fears that our confidence in, and adherence to, the public health warnings has been damaged. Not by any of those who continue to battle the personal health, emotional and financial storm that threatens us all. But somehow, somewhere along the line those most responsible for ensuring that we are not only safe, but secure in our belief in that protection, have let it slip.

Just when we thought we could see the light beginning to emerge at the end of the tunnel. A new obstacle. It would be too simplistic to say that the public’s faith began to dissolve in the spring sunshine of the Downing Street Rose Garden.

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That performance, because that is what it was, simply displayed a symptom of the malaise that was lurking below the surface and began to emerge as soon as we had time to stop and look around us. And when the Prime Minister stands at press conferences and dismisses genuine concern and criticism as political point-scoring, he misses the point.

The voices raised are those of the people he was elected to serve. The public. That avalanche of emails, and the comments I have received on Facebook, have been overwhelmingly angry at what they feel they are witnessing.

For so much of this crisis, many of us have been struck by the parallels with that last great challenge the country faced: World War Two. The spirit, the respect and support for those putting their lives on the line and the determination to win through together.

Amidst it all seemed the opportunity for the Prime Minister to fulfil, perhaps his greatest ambition, and emulate his hero Winston Churchill. He seemed keen to seize it.

Sadly in the past week his team’s approach seems to have had displayed many more of the characteristics of our military operation in that previous global conflict World War One. “Lions led by donkeys.” Even as I type I wish that was too harsh.

However every utterance from this Conservative Government has disappointed, not only me, not only their opponents, but many of their biggest supporters. I do not believe this past week reflects what the majority of Conservatives want to see.

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The Cummings debacle, the Prime Minister inexplicably silencing medical experts at a press conference and now, for me worst of all, insisting witnesses to the committee examining the Domestic Abuse Bill should come to Westminster in person. That is not right. Why bring people needlessly into potential danger when there is an alternative? But then why insist on dragging up to 650 people from all parts of the country into one location only to send them back a few days later to potentially spread the virus anew?

Increasingly these actions seem to depict an attitude of say as we say, and of a ‘them and us’ approach. If the Prime Minister is still keen to emulate his hero he surely should go back and check his history books. That was not Churchill’s way.

During the Second World War, the blackout did not just apply to the East End of London but to Downing Street and to Chequers. Rationing was universal. Through it all Churchill led a coalition with his political opponents Attlee and Sinclair at the table. Johnson has excluded all but his most favoured from the room.

The very basis of the social contract by which democracy operates is that we all give up an element of freedom in return for joint benefits and state protection. That has seldom been more crucial than at the moment.

Instead we are beginning to see garbled briefings, inconsistent messages applied with discretion where it suits, targets never met and BAME communities and others feeling unprotected.

If the Government, any government, is to take the public with them they must set an example. That means politicians and their appointed advisers.

Nowhere is the danger of not doing that clearer than in the USA this past few days. The riots in Minneapolis which culminated in the city’s police department being set alight are completely unacceptable. The sight of Minneapolis burning made my blood run cold with fear. It is an episode we must not ignore or dismiss.

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In a world that has become increasingly terrifying for ordinary people they have turned against those who they perceive to be letting them down. It shouldn’t be that way and we must not allow it to be.

Anger and frustration may be inevitable in a crisis like the one we face, but it is the Government’s job to ensure it does not boil over, by taking the public with them in what they do.

All governments do things that not everyone agrees with. That is politics. But this time the challenge is a very personal one that has already claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The Government asked us to ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’. We did. The public has shown an enormous amount of respect for everything that the Government has asked us all to do. But that has to go both ways. The biggest threat from the Cummings distraction has been that it betrayed a lack of respect for the public and the sacrifices everyone has made.

With that, the respect for the Government, its health message and all our future safety has been undermined. They must get it back. And quickly.

The first step might be that visit to the history books, or it might be to recognise that one individual is not indispensable. Public faith and support is. Churchill knew that.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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