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The Cummings-Johnson saga

Is there an unhealthy emotional dependency inside Downing Street that threatens our democracy?

Simon Szreter
29 May 2020
Poster for a theatrical adaptation of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. c.1887.
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Wikicommons/National Printing & Engraving Company, Chicago.

There is beginning to emerge something almost like a Jekyll and Hyde horror story in the Cummings-Johnson saga. Is the truth beginning to dawn on the Conservative Party that their chosen leader and Prime Minister is in fact no more than half of a person nowadays – and the weaker half at that? That he cannot be parted from Cummings because he has become completely intellectually and emotionally dependent on him for his own psychological comfort. Completely out of his depth in the job, made all the worse by being ‘in charge’ in an actual, real crisis, Johnson seems to have become the lesser part of the relationship with ‘Dom’.

Mr Cummings is the other half of a person in this bizarre compact. Where Johnson has the faux-warmth and mateyness and apparent capacity to connect with people’s emotional side through his blustering Billy Bunter act, Cummings really is the dessicated, strategic psychopath that David Cameron diagnosed – and he should know. Cummings had his opportunity to show ‘human’ and to apologise to the British people for what he did. The Rose Garden in Downing Street was a perfect location for a heartfelt act of public contrition. Instead we were treated to an hour of ‘me, me, me’ – my predicaments, my problems, my options, my choices. We may never know how much of this was freshly confected in the half hour before he appeared.

Johnson seems to have become the lesser part of the relationship with ‘Dom’.

The entire population is faced with decisions every day about putting ‘me, me, me’ second to us, us, us. There are literally thousands of people in much worse domestic situations than Mr Cummings ever was. All single parents with young children are immediately in the predicament Mr Cummings claimed he thought he might be in – of having to care for one or even several young children for a number of days, while enduring the pre-acute phase of the disease.

He does not seem to have realised this was what he was asking people to do until he was actually faced with the situation himself. Then the great strategist simply panicked. Hence his concern to cover this up with the charade that it was one supremely rational decision after another.

Mr Cummings is paid by UK taxpayers to give political and policy advice to the country’s Prime Minister. Politics is about people. The policies he advises affect the lives of us all. Policy advisers MUST be capable of empathy. They must be capable of understanding the importance of their actions on others. In the Rose Garden this is what Mr Cummings definitively demonstrated is completely lacking in his mental make-up. We were treated to a petulant insistence by an emotionally-incomplete person from his own narrow perspective that ‘I was right’. It reminded me of the way a child might respond before a parent gently chides them and gets them to think about the implications of what they have done and how it has hurt other people around them. Did Mr Cummings simply never get this elementary lesson in practical, social morality from his parents, one wonders?

Mr Cummings may be a master-strategist in the sense that a chess-player may be, but he seems to be completely devoid of human empathy. If his appearance in the Rose Garden was an attempt to show the human behind the shadowy figure, he never once mentioned the name of his child or ‘my wife’, who apparently is not permitted under any circumstances to drive the family car – his elaborately confected story depends on many unanswered implausibles, including why she didn’t drive.

Cummings is apparently so childishly keen to be a Marvel Comics super forecaster that he wanted to lecture us all on how he has been ‘writing’ about the pandemic since last year. Yet it was immediately pointed out that this was only sustained by manipulation of his blog postings. This just emphasises how far from brilliantly prescient he was. If he was so hyper-aware of this threat, why did he not advise his Prime Minister in the strongest possible terms at the earliest opportunity to take it deadly seriously and to stop parading around shaking hands? This Prime Minister and the government which Mr Cummings strategically advises completely underestimated the seriousness of the situation – not for a few days or a couple of weeks but for almost two months after the first cases were declared in Italy on 31 January. It looks like, with the possible sole exceptions of Mr Trump’s administration in USA and Mr Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, Mr Johnson’s government may prove in due course to have been guilty of the most inept response of any leading country in the world.

There were always going to be tragedies from this once-in-a-century event, but the repeated ineptitude since 2010 of an unbroken sequence of Conservative administrations, which went as far as flatly to ignore its own emergency planning advice from Exercise Cygnus in 2016, has meant literally thousands of lives lost which should not have been lost. Thousands of families unable to grieve properly who should never have been grieving in the first place. The people of the UK have the right to be angry with Mr Cummings, but also with a Prime Minister who, it is now crystal-clear, has been at the helm of the country only in name. No wonder he could disappear repeatedly for a week at a time earlier in the year – it was Cummings who was in charge. This is the dirty secret of No.10 Downing Street and it cannot now be gainsaid.

Mr Johnson’s government may prove in due course to have been guilty of the most inept response of any leading country in the world.

Cummings is no man of the people. He is barely a man, in the sense of a morally mature adult. Such as he should not be anywhere near real power in any society. It demeans and questions the validity of our democracy that a Prime Minister as craven as this should ever have emerged from the once-proud Conservative party, supposedly a home for independent-minded individuals, not the cowed, like Mr Johnson.

Covid-19 has been a greater disaster for the UK people than most others in Europe. Now, after the Rose Garden encounter with Mr Cummings, we know one small part of the reason why. The person the Prime Minister leans on like a crutch has no empathy. He has the moral sensitivities towards others of a pre-social child. What does that tell us about his nominal boss? What does it tell us about the Party which continues to deceive itself that it is in the hands of exceptional, masterly leadership, when the truth may be that we have a cravenly dependent personality being preyed on by a callous manipulator, between them leading the country ever further into chaos?

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