Lockdown - Reflections at the end of week 62

One of my favourite cartoons is by the American cartoonist Gary Larson. It has two frames, both of which show a man telling off his dog. The first frame is headed What we say to dogs, and has a speech bubble above the man which has words in which he tells Ginger the dog to stay out of the garbage three times. The second frame, entitled What they hear, has “Blah blah blah blah, Ginger, blah blah blah…”

This week, the news media have been in a feeding frenzy over first the prospect of Dominic Cummings’s appearance before a Parliamentary Health, Science and Technology Select Committee, next his evidence to that committee and then the political aftermath of it. They have been at pains to tell us over and over again how important it is.  Yet, despite the explosive nature of the claims made by him, Downing Street in a chaos of confusion, including confusion as to how seriously to take Covid 19 in the first place, significant errors in policy and of frequent lying, the overall public reaction has not reflected their excitement. Ginger-like, we seem to have largely heard “blah blah blah.”

It’s hard to put your finger on why. The simplest analysis is that during his time in Boris Johnson’s office, Dominic Cummings came to be regarded by the public as a shadowy puller of strings, an unelected manipulator and kingmaker whose stock in trustworthiness was lowered further by the infamous trip to Barnard Castle. That analysis sees his recent evidence characterised as a version of events deliberately aimed not at providing Parliament with the truth but at settling old scores.

Other suggestions include a general boredom with politics, a disillusionment with politics and our political establishment which is regarded as a circus which goes on independently of us, a cynicism about Westminster which is based on all politicians being strangers to the truth in one form or another anyway and the current weakness of the opposition which leads to it not effectively being able to hold the government to account. Whilst the real answer may be a combination of these and other factors, none of it paints a positive picture for an effective parliamentary democracy going forward.

There are also personality issues at large. What seems clear, not only from the Cummings evidence this week but also from accounts from Boris Johnson’s time at the Foreign Office and as Mayor of London, is that his style in office is unlikely to be held up as a paradigm of organisation, discipline or decisiveness. Yet he has managed through all this to continue to project a personality which a large section of the population finds engaging. His critics will say that the combination of scampishness and buffoonery is both deliberately cultivated and dangerous, but many find it engaging and charismatic. Vox pop after the Cummings select committee appearance suggests that the Prime Minister’s popularity remains resilient against an attack which is perceived to be coming from an embittered ex-employee.

Whilst the nation’s appetite for soap opera and reality TV suggests that we have a liking of being bystanders to personalised conflict, we don’t seem to like it in every context. Ask Prince Harry who has been transformed from the nation’s favourite scamp to a somewhat less popular attacker in public of a revered institution and of the Queen who is both his grandma and a national treasure. Dominic Cummings seems to have crossed that line, which could have the odd effect of increasing rather than undermining the prime minister’s popularity. All of which means that, other than the Health Secretary who seems vulnerable to being thrown under the bus after a decent interval as a political sacrifice to the Cumming evidence, the whole thing may well die down until the formal enquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic next year. This again in spite of the best efforts of the lobby correspondents to tell us how momentous this week’s events have been.

The excitement in Westminster has masked increasing levels of Covid cases and the growing possibility that stage 4 of the roadmap may not be implemented in full. Fingers crossed for the effectiveness of the vaccination programme and for wisdom in high office on that one.

One other big news item-it has emerged this week that the football authorities have been experimenting with artificial intelligence based computer systems to make offside decisions. Not only might this deliver a hammer blow to countless pub conversations and compel pundits to think of something more interesting to talk about, it also raises a significant philosophical question. When supporters sing “you don’t know what you’re doing “ in response to an offside decision in the future, will it lead to terrace debates on the true meaning of knowledge in the context of artificial intelligence? I think we know the answer to that one, if not to the philosophical question.

Summer’s arrived and the bank holiday weekend air will be thick with the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of a million barbecues. Whether you’re fighting vegetation or cremating sausages, do enjoy yours.

Ian Waine leads Prettys’ Corporate Services Team and has advised on a large number of corporate recovery and corporate restructuring cases over the last 30 years. He can be contacted at 07979 498817 or iwaine@prettys.co.uk.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner