As an expert on game theory and the like, Dominic Cummings will be well aware of the concept of moral hazard. This holds that, if individuals are protected against bearing the negative consequences of risky actions they take, they will go on pushing higher risks, damaging those around them.
For example, the banks have been invited to take ever higher risks having been bailed out following the financial crisis of 2008 – caused by their earlier excessive risk taking.
The dash to Durham
Cummings’s trip to Durham was similar: a high-risk action that might have had negative consequences for him, had he not been completely protected. He obviously knew it had been risky; otherwise why would his wife’s famous Spectator article on the drama of the family’s coronavirus experience have left out its most dramatic part, the dash to Durham?
Let’s not put the bar too high and talk about resignation as the potential consequence of his risky action. Just imagine that Cummings had apologised and acknowledged that, while under the extreme pressure of working on the Covid-19 crisis he took some family actions that he now realised were wrong.
But he did not do even that. Instead, a further risk was taken: the prime minister put his own reputation on the line in order fully to justify Cummings’ actions. The arguments Boris Johnson used (praising Cummings for following his ‘instincts’) then created an even bigger risk: that the credibility of the lockdown programme as an exercise in public trust would be weakened.
When Boris Johnson’s press conference didn’t work, a yet bigger risk was taken. Cummings’s own rose garden press conference was full of high-risk behaviour: arriving half an hour late, and telling a story so full of holes that he clearly did not care whether it was convincing or not.
Was it impossible for the second most (or the most?) powerful man in British public life to find child care in London? Is it possible to drive five hours without refuelling, attending to a child’s toilet needs or having a driver’s safety break? Let us not even mention the Barnard Castle eye-test fiasco.
The risk was taken, his bluff was called, trust in government was undermined still further, but no consequences followed for Cummings.
Track, test and distract
As the furore refused to die down, the government took a further risk to direct attention away from the Durham affair. A nationwide testing programme, scheduled to be introduced on 1 June and nowhere near a state of readiness, was brought forward by a few days.
While trackers fought with an unreliable and untested technology, and the credibility of the anti-corona campaign was risked again. The testing programme seemed like a fiasco, but the true goal of its premature launch was achieved: the Cummings story was knocked off the front pages.
Cummings’ triumph will have consequences going far beyond coronavirus. He has seen that he can act without consequence. Where else might he try his strength?
The crusade against ‘liberal elites’
Cummings’ real agenda is said to be an anti-elitist crusade. Coming from the son of a wealthy landowner, married to the daughter of a castle-owning baronet and working for an old-Etonian prime minister, this might seem odd – and rather self-loathing.
But in the rhetoric of Cummings, Steve Bannon and the rest of the alt.right, it is the liberal elites they hate.
Today ‘liberal’ is usually seen through the lens of culture wars, but in the first instance liberalism stands for opposition to concentrations of power and its unrestrained use, to a commitment to plurality and many points of independence from central power. It is this that the alt.right really hates.
Brexit is a necessary part of the anti-liberal cause for two reasons. First the European Union is a source of power with which the central British state had to share some authority; second, its treaties provide various rights that UK citizens could use against the actions of their government.
One of Cummings’s first acts when Boris Johnson reshuffled his cabinet in February was to bring the Treasury under the control of 10 Downing St (i.e. of himself). The autonomy of the Supreme Court and its capacity to call government to account; the BBC; and various human and social rights were all threatened by the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto.
Likewise, do not be perplexed by the government’s refusal to work with local authorities in the fight against coronavirus, despite their knowledge and experience of activities like contact tracing. Look no further than the fact that local government is another site of power not fully under 10 Downing Street’s tight control.
Liberal concerns over the abuse of power (and fear the consequences of prolonged popular discontent) extends to codes of behaviour that impose self-restraint on elites in the absence of formal rules. For example, if a public figure does something that arouses widespread and abiding anger, they resign.
Wimpish behaviour, says the alt.right. Just put up two fingers and hard-nose it out. As Lady Macbeth said: ‘We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail’.
It is possible that even now Cummings and Johnson would prefer that the whole Durham episode had not occurred. However, it has served the anti-liberal crusade a massive (if serendipitous) good turn. It shows how much the powerful can get away with if they brazenly ignore liberal norms.
The opposite of liberal elitism is not anti-elitism or even conservative elitism, but uncompromising arrogant elitism.
The question now is: how far the government will take this lesson?
It is probably no coincidence that within days of Cummings’s triumph becoming clear, the government started to leak information that it intended to betray the many solemn promises it had made that European animal welfare, hygiene and environmental standards would not be sacrificed in the bid to sign a trade deal with the United States. What price now the independence of the BBC and the judiciary, or the rights of British citizens to have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights?
Do the arrogant elitists also want to engage in the cultural battle, putting women back in the kitchen, gays back in prison, and ethnic minorities back to where their grandparents once belonged? Or are little implicit nods in that direction just dog whistles to attract a certain kind of voter? Messages are mixed, but Michael Gove, Cummings’s original patron, certainly pursued a socially conservative agenda when he was Secretary of State for Education.
Johnson, on the other hand, is said to be a libertarian – or is that just a verbal confusion with libertine? He will wax eloquent in support of your right to go to the pub, but not your right to seek a judicial view of a government decision. If you are worried that the coronavirus lockdown is harming your business, he will be all ears; but not if the cause is a no-deal Brexit.
Although culture wars attract most attention in today’s attacks on liberal elites, the arena of power is where the battle is most intense, with Brexit at the heart. Eventually hubris will catch up with Cummings, Johnson and the rest; but how much indelible damage will they have done to our public institutions before that occurs? Their behaviour over the bizarre Durham incident serves notice that those defending these institutions will have a tough fight on their hands.