Losing the Changing Room

24th May 2020

The English language has many examples of phrases taken from the sporting arena and used in a more general context. In the game of cricket “showing a straight bat” is a good technique to be employed when playing “on a sticky wicket”; in common usage, it refers to dealing with tricky matters in a manner that is determined and correct. If someone “bowls us a googly” (a leg-spinner’s delivery that turns in from the off side), we need to be on our guard against something that is unexpected.

Likewise, on the green baize table, we are “snookered” when we do not have a direct shot with the cue ball to any of the reds or colours we are allowed to hit without hitting one of the other balls and incurring a penalty; in everyday life, it means being faced with a range of choices, none of which are welcomed. “Par for the course” and “the ball’s in their court” – exported from golf and tennis, respectively – have similarly generalised interpretations. And so on.

Sometimes, the direction of causality goes the other way: a term that apparently has everyday usage (though it might not make much sense when taken literally) is applied in the sporting environment. Hence, in soccer, when teams “park the bus”, it means that they form a heavily manned defensive shield in front of their goal at the expense of undertaking any attacking play.

In the same sport, one often hears of managers or coaches “losing the changing room”. Of course, this does not mean that they have physically mislaid the changing area! Rather, it refers to the occasions when the players – usually a cabal of the most senior – have lost confidence in some aspect of the manager’s leadership (perhaps his tactics or his motivational skills or his team selection) with this subsequently being reflected in the displays and results on the pitch.

Which brings us to the Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson.

For the last two days, the lead story across the media has related to Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, who, with his family – his wife and 4 year-old son – drove 260 miles from London to Durham in the early period of lockdown at the end of March. Mr Cummings’s wife is reported to have been showing symptoms of having the coronavirus at the time of the journey.

Mr Johnson has recently received some criticism for the alleged vagueness in his presentation of the guidance on the 1st Stage of the relaxation of lockdown. However, in his first tv address to the nation on 24th March and in his letter to all UK households, his statement was unequivocal: “We are giving one simple instruction – you must [his emphasis] stay at home”. The accompanying guidance leaflet from the UK Government stated that: “Anyone who has… symptoms must stay at home until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days. Everyone else in the household must stay at home for at least 14 days after the first person’s symptoms appear, even if they themselves do not have symptoms”.

Mr Cummings’ defence has been that he was looking to provide childcare for his son and that he had he done nothing unlawful. Of course, one can understand his desire to do the best for his family and, I suspect, very few people are in a position to know whether Mr Cummings had any access to childcare arrangements nearer to his London home. But we all wish to do the best for our families and I do wonder what the implications would have been if 27½ million other households across the UK had decided in March that making a 260 mile journey was the most appropriate way of doing this.

This is a fast-moving story and, at the time of posting (8.30pm on Sunday evening), Mr Cummings had not resigned from his post. However, we can let those events take their course. My interest is more in the implications for Mr Johnson.

To date, the Prime Minister has stood by his chief adviser and not dismissed him. Whatever happens to Mr Cummings in the next few days or weeks, the Prime Minister’s clear preferences in this matter have been revealed. The key question now – as I see it – is this: what will be the impact on Mr Johnson’s standing in the country?

To date, the UK public has kept to the guidance on the coronavirus lockdown remarkably well. I suspect that a key factor here was the news reporting of the Prime Minister’s own serious exposure to the virus. However, it is clear that patience with respect to the economic impact of the lockdown is now running thin, with more questions being asked about the apparent (though over-simplified) trade-off between the damage to the economy and the increased mortality rate. As we have noted, the shift from full lockdown to the minor relaxation of Stage 1 has not been straightforward to deliver or understand; this will probably also be the case in the further sets of transitional arrangements that we are promised in order to move into Stages 2, 3 and 4.

It is highly unfortunate, therefore – to say the least – that, for many people, the lesson from this weekend will have been very straightforward: there has been one rule for the inner circle of No. 10 Downing Street and one rule for this rest. Against this background, it will be inevitable that the Prime Minister’s desired route through the next Stages (which is already expected to be difficult) will now be even trickier to deliver than otherwise might have been the case.

I wonder, when future historians look back on this episode, they might consider the past couple of days as the time when, in attempting to deal with the coronavirus, the Prime Minister lost the country.

The time when the manager lost the changing room.

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