In films and novels, an unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy teller of a story. In politics it’s Boris Johnson passing around a plate of inedible porkies.
His performance at that Downing Street briefing yesterday united assorted bishops, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, legions of angry and sometimes sad people on Twitter, a number of affronted Tory MPs, and my wife spitting feathers on the sofa next to me.
It’s not often you’ll hear me say this, but today’s Mail splash nails it. Beneath a sub-heading speaking of Johnson “brazenly” backing the “sevegali” who flouted his own strict lockdown rules, the headline asks: “What Planet Are They On?”
Johnson twisted morality and logic to support his abrasive adviser Dominic Cummings. There we all were thinking that breaking the lockdown to drive 264 miles from London to Durham in search of childcare was a shameful betrayal of the rules imposed on everyone else – often at great emotional cost.
But, no, our unreliable prime minister tells us Cummings acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity” – words so far from everybody else’s lips, they might as well be on the moon.
Just as you are thinking that Cummings driving 264 miles from London to Durham after suspecting his wife had caught Covid-19 was wildly irresponsible, here’s Johnson saying the exact opposite. What’s this, some weird new word game – Unreliable Scrabble in which all the words you use must mean the exact opposite?
As it happens, Cummings’ wife did have Covid-19, he caught it too – so why not do a spot of uncaring and sharing around Durham?
Johnson also insisted Cummings had been following his “instinct” as a good father to a young son. That parenthood line as a supposed clincher seems horribly cynical. Sure, Dominic Cummings would be worried about his child – but so was everybody else with children, parents, friends; worrying about those you love is natural, but it should never be a free pass to behave as you wish.
To give this a twist, last time I looked having a child doesn’t get you off a murder charge – or even possibly a hefty speeding fine.
That responsible parent line makes their child more significant than all those other children being cared for, possibly by single parents trapped in tower blocks – single parents who may have caught Covid-19 and have no escape at all.
Those rules should apply even if your parents have a huge house outside Durham and your wife’s family own a castle in Northumberland.
I watched this story develop on Twitter, where angry tweets assembled into a disbelieving chorus. First up government ministers tweeted the official line: “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime”, a slippery ball set rolling by Michael Gove, the most slippery bowler of them all. Other ministers piled in with blank-eyed loyalty, under orders to tweet – but from whom, Johnson, Cummings himself?
There is not space on this ledge to include all those tweets about people who couldn’t visit loved ones as they lay dying; parents who couldn’t comfort dying children, and other stories too awful to contemplate.
Here to represent them all is Kate Bottley, the vicar who used to be on Gogglebox: “To the man who’s wife I buried, who wasn’t allowed to hug your daughter at her mum’s funeral. To the mum who had to FaceTime to see her daughter’s coffin. To the son, who wanted to shake my hand but didn’t, after you said goodbye to your mum. I’m sorry.”
But let’s not leave without this observation on Johnson from his days at Eton, seen before but shared again by ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who digs up a letter a master at the school sent to Stanley Johnson about his son… “Eton spotted it in 1982: ‘I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else’.”
Unreliable then, unreliable now.