We must shield the vulnerable. This is what most of us have understood for the past 10 weeks. Most families have been split apart, often in dire circumstances. For adults and parents of children with compromised immune systems, this remains a frightening time. To be in touch with your own vulnerability is profoundly unsettling. Even on a sunny day, the mood you detect is one of anxiety. “Let’s have a socially distanced picnic and pretend it’s all OK,” is one reaction; another is refusing to edge out of lockdown without the kind of reassurance that can never be given.
In this clammy emotional climate, it is unbelievable that Boris Johnson’s interpretation of shielding the vulnerable meant shielding Dominic Cummings. Contempt for the public has been met with contempt from the public. The anger is real, and it will not dissipate. Cummings’ situation is untenable and Johnson is fatally damaged, whatever happens next.
Johnson always was a power-seeking void. His attraction to mythology bespoke a search for a narrative into which he could meaningfully insert himself. That and the endless women. All else was front. Since his own, hardly insignificant, brush with mortality, the void is apparent. The outer shell of his ego barely conceals the emptiness. No one comes out of intensive care without it having a huge mental and physical effect. Why pretend otherwise?
Whatever the pact between him and Cummings is about, it is centred on a fundamentally flawed view of what strong leadership is. This view values, certainty and control above all else. It brooks no weakness or doubt. Cummings, remember, got Johnson to sack the rebels. This is leadership as monstrous bravado.
This is leadership as the taunt of the flapping, faded T-shirt. How many ways can Cummings show us he just doesn’t care? Let me count the ways. Let me consult my adolescent self.
All actual vulnerabilities are transposed on to the wife and child who he was simply trying to protect. What a father! A lot of us have asked ourselves in the past months what being a good parent is or what being a good son or daughter consists of, and felt ourselves failing. The rules of lockdown do not correlate to the rules of the heart. Lockdown has asked us to negate what feels natural; to shut down the impulse to hold on to each other.
Those writing to their MPs with stories of not seeing their dying parents for weeks are stories that will stay in the culture for years to come. We cannot focus on them too much. It is our duty to memorialise these families; to make visible the hidden, isolated funerals. We owe them this at least.
While Johnson blustered, estimates of 60,000 excess deaths emerged, alongside more details of dithering over lockdown. Last week, the scientists began to break ranks. This week, bishops are speaking out.
Grief hangs in the sunlight. Grief not just for those lost, but for the everyday losses. Grief for bands in sweaty basements, for great cafes, for packed theatres, for small children heaped up like puppies in soft-play areas. These things are gone for the foreseeable future. Loss sparks sadness, but also anger. Now that anger is tangible. If the virus made us feel powerless, then the minimum we expected from our leaders was a certain solidarity.
To be vulnerable is not to be weak – it is to be human. This is the terrible mistake these men have made. Their model of leadership belongs to another era. These people are not mavericks but straightforward elitists using Trump’s playbook: banning certain journalists from briefings, engaging only when they choose, refusing accountability. This they see as strength, but it cannot conceal the truth or their weakness.
They failed to shield the nation with early lockdown and to set up a testing system. They failed to understand that most people would comply for the sake of the greater good as we are not all ego-driven chancers.
The result of fronting it out against the virus is the highest death toll in Europe. It is hard to think of a worse result. Admitting vulnerability can be a strength, not in a “letting it all hang out” way or by simply trying to elicit sympathy. Vulnerability in leadership, as Brené Brown says, “is having the courage to show up, fully engage and be seen when you can’t control the outcome”. The normal coping strategies when we feel out of control are to deny our own uncertainty or feel shame. We can see how other leaders have acknowledged their own self-doubt, from Emmanuel Macron to Jacinda Ardern.
Here, the forbearance of ordinary people has been mistaken for servitude. That is wrong, and as lockdown ends with schools reopening, there is a volatility out there that does not have party loyalties. The issue is not whether Johnson forgives Cummings his rule-breaking. Only very special people get to display their vulnerability in Downing Street’s rose garden. This is small beer, and they are both exposed as small men. The issue is whether we the people will forgive this government’s fatal failure to keep us safe.
The shallow defences are ever more flimsy, as one police chief tells us that lockdown is now “dead in the water”. As Cummings’ favoured author, Dostoevsky, wrote: “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” Indeed. It is quite something when the prime minister does not even look remotely convinced of his own statements. It is unforgivable.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist