Cummings is now a laughing stock. Alas, so is Britain

William Keegan
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

My father, who was of Irish extraction but hailed from County Durham, used to say: never kick a man when he is down. After the shambles of Mr Dominic Cummings’s recent excursion to Durham, one might be tempted to make an exception to the rule. But there is no need. The prime minister’s once-valued adviser has been kicking himself – but not in the colloquial sense of expressing regret for his actions.

Deeper and deeper he dug himself in, as one terminological inexactitude led to another, and the rule-breaker failed lamentably to justify breaking government lockdown instructions for which he was at least in part responsible.

Now, I have never, to my knowledge, met Mr Cummings. But what amazes me, and almost everyone I know, is how this first-class clown could have acquired a reputation for having anything resembling a brain. His snivelling appearance before the media in the garden of No 10 was a classic of its kind.

The eye test has made him an international laughing stock; and, while we are on the subject of sight, his supposed foresight in forecasting the outbreak of the plague must be making George Orwell laugh in his grave. In 1984, Big Brother’s team made forecasts once they knew the result. Cummings appears to have tried the same but was found out. The guru can, it seems, be sensationally incompetent. If only he had manifested such incompetence during the referendum campaign and the 2019 general election. In those days he was, alas, far more successful in distorting the truth.

Remain or leave No 10, he will no doubt continue to be locked down with his partner in crime, Boris Johnson, as they persist with their plan to rain no-deal hammer blows on an economy that is in enough trouble already.

It is difficult to know with which of the two conspirators one should be more disgusted – Cummings, who seems to have devoted half his shabby career to propelling this once-great country out of the EU; or Johnson, the solipsist who hitched himself to Cummings’s wagon as a route to No 10, the future of relations with our European partners being of secondary interest to him.

Although economically damaging, the lockdown was socially necessary. Britain was not alone

The interesting thing is that part of their success hitherto was attributable to their soi-disant revolt against the “metropolitan elite” and wooing the so-called “left-behind” – not least those left behind in places such as my father’s home county. But the pair of them have been found out. The denizens of Durham and elsewhere do not like being taken for mugs; they do not credit the story told by Johnson and Cummings to rationalise his breach of the rules, the observance of which has caused pain and sacrifice to millions of less fortunate and carefree citizens.

Although economically damaging, the lockdown was socially necessary. Britain was not alone: most other countries adopted lockdowns of one sort or another. Where the British government was exceptional was in being woefully unprepared for the onset of the virus, and criminally incompetent in the way it has handled it – to the point where, as I write, we have the highest percentage of excess deaths above the historical average of any country in Europe, the G20, or indeed most of the world, with the possible exception of Peru.

It seems to be widely recognised that from the economic point of view there are two scenarios. The short-term one of trying to minimise the damage as unemployment soars and plant closures multiply; and the longer-term one of accepting that there could be a parallel with the position in 1945, when the opportunity was taken to try and build a better society than had prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s.

With regard to the latter, there were hopes that Johnson had learned from his resurrection at the hands of immigrant doctors and nurses that essential workers should no longer be taken for granted. But such hopes were not encouraged when he told the Commons that immigrant NHS workers would have to pay for NHS treatment because of “the cost”.

True, he was shamed into retreating from that heartless position, but it was not a good sign.

Indeed, the cost figure he cited was derisory by comparison with the billions that Chancellor Sunak is borrowing to alleviate the economic depression. And, since you ask, I am reasonably relaxed about this while interest rates are so low. As for the idea of imposing austerity on an economy that has already been hammered by official action in the interest of the nation’s health, don’t make me laugh. There will come a time when taxes may have to be raised, but not in the immediate future.