The Cummings road trip debacle is my last straw

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

I can’t remember the day I realised Santa Claus wasn’t real but I will never forget the moment I lost my belief in the Conservative party. It happened very recently — this morning, in fact. It was an odd day anyway which began with my reading an email from Mary Wakefield, inviting me to write this diary, even as she was appearing on my TV screen: an unnerving experience. Should I accept? Should I pretend that I’m ignorant of the biggest news story of the moment? I’m reassured that the one of the most trenchant and earliest attacks on Dominic Cummings’s road trip was written by Alex Massie and appeared on The Spectator website. It was an extraordinary article and kudos to The Spectator for publishing it.

But much, much worse than the incident itself has been the government’s handling of it and it was watching the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, being interviewed by Andrew Marr a few minutes later that did it for me. He had the misfortune to follow Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who spoke with such grace and lucidity that I was reminded of those pipe-smoking boffins who used to turn up in Foyle’s War, the epitome of British reliability and good sense. Even before Shapps began speaking I was bracing myself. George Orwell — who else? — got it right. ‘Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ Pure wind would be a generous description of Shapps’s attempts to manipulate the wriggle room he had given himself — and the Prime Minister’s press conference later the same day was even worse. What is the word for it when the entire country sees what is obviously true but is repeatedly told that it isn’t? And when the person telling you doesn’t really care? Shamelessness. That’s what the government now seems to promote.

All of this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The screenwriter William Goldman famously said that ‘nobody knows anything’ and that’s certainly true of this stage of lockdown. It’s not just a case of leading by example. How can we follow the rules when we can’t even define them? Are you allowed to use Tube trains in London? I went on one a couple of days ago after asking a policeman who was guarding the station but who said that as far as he knew I probably was. The whole thing was quite an adventure. As far as I could tell, there were only two people on the train and one was driving it. I felt the same excitement I’d had when, as a 12-year-old, I was allowed to travel on my own for the first time. Walking through King’s Cross and hearing my footsteps echoing in the silence is something I won’t forget.

Every day now I spend three or four hours strolling through London. We rightly applaud the NHS, the police, the key workers but we should spare a thought for the men and women who have looked after our parks — Green Park, Hyde Park, St James’s — and made them so glorious. I’d forgotten quite what a beautiful city London is and I see buildings, monuments, whole streets that I had never noticed before in the daily rush. I stopped on Constitution Hill and for the first time read a quotation by the Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri, carved into the Commonwealth Memorial Gates. ‘Our future is greater than our past.’ It must be wonderful to have your words immortalised in this way and what a powerful statement: so simple and yet so profoundly true.

I’m often asked if I will write about the virus — but I don’t think I will. There’s something quite deadening about an experience that has been shared by the whole population. Perhaps that’s why relatively few great novels came out of the two world wars. I am however tempted by a murder story set against a Zoom meeting with all the suspects stuck in different windows and the killer somehow slipping across to dispatch his victim when the two of them are supposedly in different cities. London and Durham, for example.

Although I didn’t write it, I was very much involved in the television series of Alex Rider, which airs on 4 June. We were fortunate to finish filming at the end of last year because making high-end drama is going to be extremely difficult for the foreseeable future. It’s not just the new restrictions, social distancing etc, which will add around 20 per cent to any budget. The real bugbear is insurance. It’s impossible to get any — so a single illness in the cast or crew would mean having to close down the entire shoot which would effectively bankrupt the production company. Alex is on Amazon Prime and I hope you enjoy it. It’s certainly more fun than current politics.

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