Sorry is the hardest word for Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson – and it means the public will lose further trust in politicians

Trust has been seriously eroded throughout this pandemic because of the inability to talk openly and honestly, we have to stop it going any further

Jess Phillips
Sunday 24 May 2020 19:02
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Boris Johnson leaps to the defence of Dominic Cummings

It’s sad, so sad, it’s a sad sad situation and it’s getting more and more absurd. Sorry seems to be the hardest word indeed, and I am just not sure why.

This week’s least regretful villain of the piece is Dominic Cummings, who not only seems completely unwilling to apologise but seemingly expects to be held in high esteem for his lockdown misdemeanours. According to lots of people in the Cabinet and Boris Johnson himself, by driving his infected family around the country, Cummings was just doing what any loving father would do in the circumstances.

I am myself in possession of two loving fathers, my own who said, after I suggested that I would pop around and leave supplies outside the door: “Leave me a bag of flour by the garage door and I’ll come out and grab it then spray it with meths before I take it in the house.”

Then there’s my husband, who I can guarantee you, had I become ill with coronavirus would have just looked after me and our kids. If he had become ill himself, we would have coped together at home. This isn’t just what any loving father would do it is in fact what 99.9 per cent of the loving fathers in the country did do.

Had we both been taken to hospital without any warning, which seems vanishingly unlikely, yes we would have leaned on family and friends, perhaps just not the ones who live hundreds of miles away. We would have asked friends or even local volunteer groups which exist everywhere to come and deliver food to our door.

This is what we did for our friends who both got sick and have a seven-year-old and a five-year-old. “Thank god for the launch of Disney +,” my mate sent me in a message from her sick bed. Millions of parents across the country have had to consider a plan, it will have been much like a government slogan. Stay Home. Call the Doctor. Cope.

I may not be a communications Svengali, so perhaps I am completely wrong, but I think that had Cummings just said sorry and admitted that he made a bad and panicky call, the public would have been cross but understanding. We have all found it hard to adjust after all.

Obviously my idea of humility being the best policy was shot to bits by the follow-up allegations of walks in bluebell woods and a possible second visit to Durham seemingly just for leisure. Even if Cummings has denied some allegations.

When I floated this idea of honest apologetic politics to my husband, he scoffed and told me I was an idealist. “The man in charge of making judgements for the country can’t come out and say he made a bad judgement. He should, but I just can’t see how that works,” he said.

This makes me really sad, not because I want Cummings to have an easy way out, or for politicians to lean for a zero-consequences apology every time they mess up like an errant eight-year-old, but because I want politics to change. I want people to be able to get something wrong because they tried something new, or thought it was for the best but turned out that they were wrong.

I want people to be able to make mistakes and learn. I want real human people who don’t have gleaming back stories to feel that they could enter politics and not be strung out to dry. I want politics to be more honest and realistic, so people think it is for them.

The inability of the government in this crisis to admit fault or genuine mistakes has led to a breakdown of trust, not a build-up of confidence.

I had some complaints and some praise about how the government was handling things at the beginning of the crisis, I would however say that I trusted that they wanted what they felt was best for the country regardless of our political differences. That trust has been completely eroded throughout this pandemic because of the inability to talk openly and honestly about the things that have gone wrong.

'As I understand it': Grant Shapps flounders in defence of Dominic Cummings

The nation’s care workers must have felt angry when the health minister talked about a protective ring around care homes. The NHS staff wearing inappropriate PPE, or the staff who contracted the virus must have ended up tearing their hair out when we were repeatedly told about a PPE-carrying aeroplane coming from Turkey and ministers talked about a million of this and a billion of that.

Then to top off the whole sorry breakdown, the prime minister himself took to the podium and told the British public that by travelling hundreds of miles while infected, Dominic Cummings was stopping the spread of the virus. Dear voters, the sky is no longer blue, the moon is made of cheese and black is in fact very much white.

The fact that politics has seemingly become so allergic to saying “sorry we got it wrong”, or “sorry we didn’t do enough but now we will learn from it”, is very dangerous. It costs lives when reputations matter more than doing what is right, fair and safe.

Sorry on its own is never enough, humility can be a tactic, of course, but an ability to say that you got stuff wrong and it will inform what you do next is the sign of good governance and also it is worth the risk because I think, idealistically perhaps, that it would be really popular.

In the sorry tale of Cummings and the trip north it is now too late for humility, questions have to be answered. It is clear that rules and consequences are different for some, same as it ever was. For this I am deeply sad and very sorry.

I will not give up on the idea that honesty and humility matter and in the end I think that sorry can win. Perhaps I’m an idealist and for this I am not sorry.

Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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