Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Cummings must go – but whatever happens trust is the real casualty

by Chris on 24th May 2020

The Prime Minister has bottled it. Astonishingly to even the most disinterested observer, he has argued that Dominic Cummings acted responsibly, legally and with integrity. But his defence won’t stem the tide of calls for Cummings to go. Quite the reverse.

The case for Cummings’ departure was made with characteristic brilliance by the commentator, Alex Massie, in The Spectator yesterday. I’ve nothing to add.

The UK Government’s governance of this crisis has been an increasingly hairy ride for some time. The brakes failed when Stay at Home became Stay Alert.

As Martin Fletcher wrote earlier in the New Statesman, even before Cummings’ behaviour was revealed, people were already disgruntled, and polls showed their diminishing support for the government’s handling of the crisis.

Now, we are at a hairpin bend. Whether Cummings’ political career crashes over the precipice is a matter which will continue to occupy column inches and TV studios. But whatever happens, the real casualty, already, is trust — at a moment when we can least afford it.

Imposing restrictions was always going to be more straightforward than easing them. Instruction is a blunt instrument but has a huge advantage — simplicity.

As we emerge, tentatively, from lockdown, things are going to get much more complicated. Gradually we will have more latitude and greater freedom to work out what it’s best to do in any given situation.

Our individual agency will be strengthened. But liberation from lockdown will come with demands too.

In the absence of a vaccine, and unless and until we know more, the virus’ presence among us will be unchanging. It will continue to be able to go where it pleases — if we fail to exercise that agency carefully and allow it to.

For those of us who can step, dazed and blinking, into the light again, we will find the world unrecognizable from the one we left on the evening of March 23rd. As we open the shutters on the lives we put on hold, unknowability and uncertainty will need to be our watchwords.

For some, of course, the continued existence of the virus will mean that it may not be possible to open those shutters at all until a vaccine is found. Imagine that.

In this world ahead of us, trust will be even more critical — in each other, in institutions, and, most crucially in government. It is worth considering, in this context, what we know about levels of trust and what drives public trust in government.

An OECD report on Trust and Public Policy in 2017 contains a stark warning. Political leaders ignore the very tangible role that trust plays in the effectiveness of government at their peril.

The report notes that the erosion of public trust has been a recurring issue for some time but was brought into sharp relief by the 2008 economic crash, most of all people’s trust in public institutions.

The report goes on to point out that public institutions have a strong incentive to inspire public trust. High trust is associated with cooperation. In contrast, resistance may come with low trust, even to things which may be in our best interest.

There are, it says, two key elements to strengthening trust between government and citizens — competent execution and a values-driven approach to decision making.

It doesn’t take much more than a casual glance at the Cummings moment to spot the problem here. Trust just got harder.

But read on and the road gets steeper still. There are, the report suggests, four particularly powerful policy levers at any government’s disposal:

– clear and transparent definition of, and adherence to, integrity principles including equal treatment and enforcement;

– capitalising on critical opportunities to demonstrate integrity in practice;

– political leaders leading by example;

– development and application of common standards of behaviour at all levels of government.

Take another look at those drivers against the backdrop of recent events and it’s clear that a pattern emerges — of abject failure.

You Gov’s poll on Cummings’ actions reveals that people think he broke the rules by a margin of 68–18 per cent and should resign by a margin of 52–28. So, whatever its fortunes in the polls to date, the government’s credibility, if it chooses to stick with him, is surely on the skids.

Even more risky — not to say absurd — is the line Government spokespeople have deployed in Cummings’ defence — and theirs in not acting against him. Apparently, any of us would have done the same thing faced such a grave family dilemma.

The problem is — as countless people have said — we have been, and we didn’t. Rather this moment has only served to ramp up the sense — already well understood — that although we have been asked to abide by the same rules, we are not all in this together.

Of course, all of us, regardless of what responsibilities we have — politicians and their advisers included — are citizens too. But we all need to make the right decisions in the seclusion of our private lives, no matter our public roles. Some even more than others, because of them.

That may feel unfair to those already burdened by responsibility. But if it feels harsh, perhaps they should look at things from the other end of the telescope. The unfairness at the bottom of the pile is a damn sight harder.

Will he go? Who knows? The political calculations keeping him there are hardly a secret. But whatever the size of Johnson’s majority, he seems hell-bent on squandering the swings that gave him it.

Political popularity stakes aside, as we navigate our way out of lockdown, the choices at our disposal are about to get trickier. The need for trust — between us as citizens, and in government, will be ever greater. And trust, even if Cummings isn’t, will be the big casualty of this debacle.

That could cost us very dear indeed. This remains a global pandemic. Lives are at stake. Trust isn’t to be trifled with.

Previous post: