Where will this government take us?
The scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings has brought a lot of things into perspective – and no, that’s not a joke about eye-tests. We have seen clearly that this government will ignore public outrage, media interrogation, or risk to their own public health policy in order to protect their personal power. This shows a determination that is distinctly worrying in politics because it suggests a zealous desire to use personal power that cannot be let go. Over recent years and months, they have warned us what end that is.
Having set the rules and the message for Covid19 lockdown, Dominic Cummings, the government’s strategy and messaging guru, showed hypocrisy or even contempt by driving for five hours to another property when he suspected that he and his wife might be virus-spreaders. The only reasonable course of action to protect the authority of the government was to sack him but that didn’t happen. Confidence in the government was already falling and has fallen dramatically further since. Police have subsequently ‘retreated’ from enforcing lockdown, Dominic Cummings has become an excuse for lockdown violators and adherence to lockdown has fallen overall.
The public overwhelmingly wanted Cummings to be punished and 61 Conservative MPs have spoken of their disapproval. The fact that he wasn’t, that he was kept even when it was damaging the government, the public health message and risking making a pandemic crisis worse, strongly implies that Cummings and his personal plans are of vital importance to this government.
Cummings famously blogs about his ideas, from eugenics to how hammering home a limited set of lies won him the Brexit referendum, to articles that then get revised to help sell a lie later. This extends to declaring war on public service broadcasting via think tanks and directing the 2019 General Election campaign and Conservative manifesto.
It’s this last outlet, the Conservative manifesto, that provides warnings for what’s to come. This document largely influenced by Cummings, has several vague yet threatening pledges that will be to the detriment of democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
Ensuring electoral victory
The repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act might have some merits and indeed was also proposed by Labour in their manifesto but, the government’s recent and ongoing behavior does not give hope to the idea that better legislation will be brought in to replace it. Having pledged to repeal the Act, it seems most likely that this Prime Minister will keep the power to decide when to hold the next election.
For almost a decade, the Conservatives have been pushing to redraw election boundaries in order to reduce the number of MPs – even as they have complained that the population is growing. As well as having fewer representatives per citizen, this is also expected to favour the Conservatives in terms of winning seats. The manifesto promised these changes once more alongside support for First Past the Post and voting age remaining at 18 years. Also, despite no evidence of significant voter fraud in UK elections, voter ID requirements are also promised which notoriously disenfranchises working class and ethnic minority voters.
All of these measures combine to near guarantee another term for PM Johnson – whenever he chooses his next contest.
Increasing government power
Over the past couple of years parliament’s sovereignty was shown on several occasions to be stronger than the government’s will. The 2019 manifesto again included a vague promise or threat of a change on this front, with updates to “the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts.” In a very short summary this threatens the ability for courts to judge governments, for the Opposition to demand the release of government papers or for parliament to take control of parliamentary business. They also want to diminish the powers of judicial review.
It had been Theresa May that started boycotting Opposition Day and who defended attacks on the judiciary. But she at least had the decency to sack her closest ally when he was embroiled in scandal. Johnson and Cummings are more serious about exercising their power than May ever was.
Johnson feels that he has reason to distrust the courts – one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to shut down parliament entirely and then for that to be ruled illegal. If he intends more of the same then he must shore up his own supremacy and diminish such oversight.
And of course, he has shown that he intends more of the same. During the 2019 election Johnson notoriously avoided scrutiny by interview or debate; undoubtedly under the management of Cummings. When he took power, he banned some reporters from press briefings.
In Parliament, Johnson refused to be scrutinised by the only Select Committee with the power to do so: three times. He has recently consented but only after bypassing Parliamentary convention to install a key ally as the committee chair, limiting the questioning time in relation to the Cummings scandal, and excluding prominent critics from within his own party.
Perhaps it’s just part of the white-wash of the Cummings scandal that colleagues are suggesting he might quit in six months but their statements are very much linked to whether he can carry out his “Whitehall reforms.” Supportive MPs who are close to Number 10 have also repeated and supported Cummings’ aim of “fixing the Whitehall machine.”
This could refer specifically to the Civil Service or it could mean the full package of manifesto pledges as described above.
Cummings has made clear that he wants to rip up the Civil Service as we know it, including that he wanted to hire ‘weirdos and misfits.’ Ultimately Cummings ended up hiring another eugenicist. Of course, when the minor scandal of that employee’s past actions was raised, he was got rid of immediately.