Government by Toddler

Getting dressed after the shower, Leon sidles up to me, “Daddy my cwayon has bwoke.” The boys were three and one at the time.

“Oh dear, how’d you do that, son?”

“It bwoke on the wall.”

A dash downstairs found Nelson in full Neolithic cave-art mode. Navy blue Crayloa on magnolia emulsion. Celtic swirls decorating the wall on the stairs.

Crayons confiscated, boys sternly told of the seriousness of their actions. Then a courtroom drama in which Nelson introduces the plot twist, “No! I not naughty, you naughty!”

That was ten years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Toddlers are cute. Nature has programmed us to think so.

Dominic Cummings is not a toddler. Neither are cabinet ministers. They have the power to fine you if you break the lockdown. They can decide to charge you for using the NHS. They also have the codes to Britain’s nuclear arsenal. They are millionaires.

The scandal isn’t that a career psychopath broke the rules (David Cameron’s description of Cummings). The scandal is that the entire cabinet is being wheeled out to defend him. Every other public official caught breaking the law had to resign for potentially spreading a fatal disease.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Leader of the House Jacob Rees Mogg, and Foreign Sec and deputy PM Dominic Raab among them. All following the no 10 script.

In two hours they all used the words “care” and “child” in their tweets. Almost as if a single press officer had written them. (Then dutifully retweeted by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.)

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s was the most toddleresque – accusing people of “trying to score political points” – I not naughty, you naughty!

It’s total bull, of course. Cummings doesn’t think rules apply to him. He thinks everyone else is too stupid to have an opinion. He says so in his blog. Worse still, their story isn’t straight. Eye witnesses and the police have disproven them. Toddler excuses and toddler lies.

The science of psychology has proven that toddlers have no ‘theory of mind’. Simply, they are not capable of realising that we might have different beliefs and opinions from them. We forgive toddlers because we know they will grow up.

With the Cabinet, we all knew they were lying. They knew they were lying. Why did they think they could get away with it? We’ve seen a catalogue of errors and lies about the handling of this crisis. When we look at the catalogue of failures we can see why. The worst death rate in Europe. Bungled PPE deliveries. Testing regimes not in place. Deciding to quarantine air passengers eight weeks after imposing a lockdown. We been misled on PPE. On testing. On statistics. On what the science said. So why stop there? In for a penny, in for a pound. After all, it worked when they deceived the Queen on proroguing Parliament.

They no longer tell you what’s true. They tell you what’s plausible. Most people think propaganda is about spin & exaggeration. It often was. But emboldened by Trump, some realised that a complete fiction was more effective. Sure, some serious people would never believe you again. But they’d never vote for you anyway.

Hannah Arendt, philosopher who escaped from Nazi Germany, wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exist.”

Far better to make it a slanging match. To destroy truth altogether. When people start thinking everybody lies, they’ll go along with the loudest voice or the funniest clown.

There’s a platitude in politics that we’re all trying to do good, just we have different views of how to get there. It’s not really true – there are many different visions of the world we want to see. Grown-up politicians are comfortable debating it, based on evidence and values.

Not all the Tories are toddlers. I deal with some who, in a private conversation, will admit things are not going as planned. It’s much less adversarial than you might think. Being in government is hard work. I approach these meetings trying to find solutions, and they’re glad of a break from conflict. There’s not many of them left, mind. Most of the dissenting voices were sacked in BJ’s temper tantrum last August.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning. By the time it’s published, Cummings may have been axed. There’s normally no hesitation in throwing an advisor or two under the bus to save a PM or minister’s hide. So either DC has some serious dirt on BJ’s inner circle, or they’re terrified that one admission of failure will lead to a torrent.

Here’s a challenge to any of our North East Conservative politicians. Show us you’re grown-ups. Tell the truth. Call out your cabinet ministers who lied and wriggled to defend Cummings. Ask for a public apology. Show us there’s an alternative to government by toddler.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25.5.20