Not since Thomas Becket has a counselor to the government of Britain caused so much controversy. Dominic Cummings, the chief adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was revealed over the weekend to have broken quarantine rules while sick with Covid-19 in April, including driving from London to Durham, in the north of England, to stay with his family. Cummings is roughly the British equivalent of Steve Bannon—seen by liberals as a sort of frighteningly impressive-but-evil Blog Genius who is untethered from the usual rules of politics, willing to adopt populist rhetoric to achieve the goals of the elite, only too happy to be found palling around with racists, and an owner of terrible clothes. But, as of Tuesday night, it seems there is one characteristic he doesn’t share with Bannon: For now, he is sticking around.
The story unfolded over the holiday weekend with many Iannucci-esque twists and turns. First, it was revealed Cummings broke social distancing rules by driving to his parents’ house in Durham, while sick with Covid-19. Next came the absurd details of exactly what happened when he broke lockdown, including his visit to a local castle with his family. Finally, at a press conference on Monday, Cummings trotted out even more absurd defenses: that he drove to the castle to “test his eyesight,” for example. (Conservative minister Michael Gove tried to defend Cummings on the radio by saying he has done the same thing.) Cummings also protested that while he did walk outside while sick, the walk was on his father’s estate—meaning his father owns rolling fields of green English glory and not that his dad lives in a public housing project, the other meaning of “estate” in the U.K.
The outrage in Britain has been remarkably universal, particularly for such a divided nation. Even The Daily Mail, a thoroughly conservative and despicable tabloid that usually loves Tory governments (and particularly Brexit Boris), called for Cummings to resign. Footage on Twitter showed members of the public mocking Cummings as he walked down the street. It’s easy to see why the story has caused such widespread outrage. Britain has the second-highest number of coronavirus deaths, after the United States, and implemented social distancing measures later than similar countries, likely causing thousands more deaths than if it had acted early: The Times reported last week that infections “rocketed from an estimated 200,000 to 1.5 million in the nine days before lockdown while the prime minister agonised over how and when to act.” Many thousands of people have been unable to see their family members in their final moments or visit relatives who are sick with other illnesses.
There is also something about Britain and the British that makes this story perfectly primed to rile people up. As the writer Christopher Hooks pointed out on Twitter, Brits hate nothing more than a queue-jumper. We love to get mad about People Breaking the Rules; we are a nation of curtain-twitching busybodies, and there’s no greater occasion for such behavior than a pandemic. British society is also much more class conscious than the U.S., for better and for worse. (In the U.S., “middle class” is a neutral term, used to define a huge group encompassing the really-quite-rich and the really-quite-poor, and politicians rarely talk about the “working class”; in Britain, “middle class” is usually an insult that mainly means “bougie.” Buying nice olive oil and sending your kids to private school is middle class.)
Our loathing of our politicians has a slightly different, more bitter note than the American hatred for their own politicians; Brits revel in their downfall and have not traditionally rehabilitated the losers. Cummings’s willingness to flout his own government’s regulations is an example of what has long been clear about the Tories, and particularly Boris Johnson’s brand of Etonian elitism: They believe they are better than you and that the rules don’t apply to them. Or, more accurately, they know they can bend the rules and get away with it. (And yet, the Conservatives won a huge majority in December; perhaps there are more Brits who aspire to be the posh ones in charge than not.)
The Cummings incident can be seen as a sort of minor stress test for British democracy: Can public outrage and clear evidence of wrongdoing still force out a political figure, even from the Boris Johnson government? As of Tuesday night, Britain seems to have failed the test. Speculation about why has ranged from a suggestion that Boris simply can’t sack his “ideas man” to Boris’s own personal loyalty to his friends—or, more to the point, to their ability to get away with anything. Most troubling of all is the prospect that Johnson, often compared to Trump for his scandalous personal life and bad hair, and his right-hand man have picked up one neat trick from their American friend: Blaming the media for reporting the story at all and simply carrying on as if all this doesn’t matter. After all, there isn’t anything other than shame to really force Johnson to act otherwise. And with almost 40,000 dead in Britain, after clear evidence of unnecessary delay and indecision, it’s hard to imagine Johnson has the capacity for any shame at all.