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Why Britain Is in an Uproar Over a Tory Lockdown Scofflaw

The UK’s Boris Johnson had been coasting through the COVID-19 crisis — but that was before his aide Dominic Cummings’s flouting of social-distancing rules set off a nationwide furor. It’s reminded the country of everything they hate about the Tories: their privileged obliviousness and their belief that normal rules don’t apply to them.

Dominic Cummings leaves his home on May 27, 2020 in London, England. On March 31, Downing Street told journalists that Cummings, senior adviser to British prime minister Boris Johnson, was self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms at his home in North London. Durham police have confirmed that he was actually hundreds of miles away at his parent's house, having traveled there with his wife and young son. Leon Neal / Getty

Finally, Boris Johnson has found a way to unite the country. Defending Dominic Cummings breaking multiple rules surrounding the lockdown has united the country in fury. One poll found that 71 percent of people wanted Cummings sacked for driving 250 miles to his father’s estate, then driving to Barnard Castle, a local beauty spot, “to test his eyesight.” His claim that doing so was perfectly within rights because he worried both he and his wife would become too ill to look after their four-year-old rankles with all parents, especially single parents, and those who have only been able to see their children via video calls.

It causes widespread fury because people have given up so much for the lockdown. Five friends I know have had parents die of COVID-19, and even ex-members of parliament (MPs) have been unable to attend their funerals or had their loved ones die alone. I, along with many of my friends, am in the twelve-week shielding category: we’re not allowed to leave the house except for medical appointments. We’re all desperate to see our friends in person, but we have adhered to the rules closely, as the government told us to do. The police have issued fines for far less than Cummings’s behavior, while the vast majority of us have stuck rigidly to the rules, even though they cause us to go bonkers — staring at walls, stuck inside with no one to talk to, and only interacting with friends who bring you groceries, while a man who railed against the “elites” broke multiple rules and was defended at length by the Etonian prime minister.

At the Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Johnson was savaged by MPs from all parties over Cummings. Asked by Labour’s Meg Hillier if he had been shown evidence that the Mirror and the Guardian’s reporting of Cummings’s behavior was false, Johnson insisted he had, but he refused Hillier’s request that the purported evidence be shown to the cabinet secretary and published. Even Tory MPs have railed against “inconsistencies” in Cummings’s account of the law-breaking trip.

It is patently clear that there is one rule for the great unwashed, and another entirely for the wealthy in power. Cummings is not a working-class commoner; he comes from a family rich enough to own three houses on a vast stretch of land. If you’ve followed government advice and not seen your family, you will feel like a fool. The response to Cummings is largely one of anger, but many people now also say they feel more relaxed about breaking the rules, since Cummings said he relied on his “instinct.”

Johnson’s refusal to sack Cummings, and his extensive public backing of his adviser, have damaged him heavily. The Tories had been riding high through the COVID-19 crisis, despite the incredibly high death toll, the lack of personal protective equipment, and the racial and ethnic disparities in deaths among both patients and staff. Now, the one thing that has shaken public confidence in the government is Johnson’s willful refusal to even upbraid his adviser, let alone fire him.

Keir Starmer hasn’t wowed anyone, bar a handful of journalists who view Parliament as an Oxbridge debating society, but Johnson’s behavior may actually be the one thing that makes a Labour government possible in 2024. He has four and a half years to make even more disastrous decisions that polarize public opinion, and the more he’s on show, the worse it gets. While Starmer feels like Gordon Brown, agonizing over policy decisions until the moment has passed, Johnson may be the next John Major: a Tory prime minister waiting patiently until the inevitable defeat.