There is a photograph, taken during the pandemic, of the inner circle at Number 10. The Prime Minister appears grave and anxious. Beside him were his right-hand men, the consigliere Dominic Cummings (in his trademark fleece) and Lee Cain, the director of communications, who looks like one of the bullet-headed Mitchell brothers from EastEnders. In the middle, dominating the room, stands Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, who is flushed and gesturing furiously at a sheet of statistics. Behind Whitty is Health Secretary Matt Hancock, arms crossed and shellshocked as though he just saw the ghost of his own career.
My first thought on seeing the picture of that Big Boys’ Club was: they’re not social distancing! The draconian rules which that select group imposed on the British people clearly didn’t apply to them. It explains maybe why they all got Covid.
Secondly, there isn’t a single female face in the room. That isn’t just a question of token gender diversity. It really really mattered during the past eight months when edicts handed down by the Big Boys’ Club provoked mums around the country to shout at the TV.
“You must go to work if you can,” declared Boris. And the women of Britain bellowed back: “But the schools are still closed, you fool! How are we supposed to go to work?” Has Boris ever had to sort childcare for his multiple offspring? Silly question.
Women not only deserved a representative at the top table; a female perspective was downright essential to save the men from making idiots of themselves, which they did with embarrassing frequency.
Throughout the crisis, it is mainly women who have witnessed, first-hand, the devastating effect of Government policies on real people. Women who shouldered the burden of caring. Women who corralled reluctant kids round the kitchen table for home-schooling.
To mothers fell the task of comforting dejected teenagers who had their exams and other milestones stolen from them. It was mums who hit the phones after the A-level debacle to find a university place for tearful sons and daughters. (Mums I know confidently predicted back in March that grading exams using an algorithm based on previous years’ school performance would cause chaos and unfairness.)
It was good old Mum who spent hours talking students off the metaphorical ledge when her offspring arrived to find uni was about as much fun as a Covid-safe Colditz. And it is warrior daughters who have formed pressure groups to relieve the devastating isolation of elderly men and women in care homes.
When Professor Whitty and other SAGE scientists told the Big Boys’ Club that people could see only one person outside their household would a woman have laughed and pointed out that no one who was travelling to visit their parents would agree to see just mum but not dad?
Would a woman have explained to the guys that bolting the gates of children’s playgrounds during lockdown while allowing golf clubs to stay open was not a good look? Would a woman, who has to plan the family Christmas, have argued strongly against the nutty Rule of Six, which is almost calculated to upset as many relatives as possible? You bet she would. The chaps didn’t have a clue.
I have only met Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain once, at a meeting where I was the sole female present. Cain seemed like a toff’s idea of a clever working-class person. He struck me as neither especially bright nor over-burdened with people skills. Probably cultivating a glowering mystique to hide his inadequacies. Cummings has a laser-like intensity that befits a legendary Svengali, but you wouldn’t trust him to mind a dachshund while you popped to the shop. Their combined emotional intelligence would struggle to make it into double figures. (This explains why, instead of apologising for his trip to Barnard Castle, Cummings delivered a dissertation on Why What I Did Wrong was Within the Rules. Public trust in the Government has never recovered.)
Undoubtedly, such types have a key part to play in a tunnel-visioned team with one eye on goal, as they proved while steering Vote Leave to victory. What they lack is the common sense and broader human sympathy which our current national crisis also demands. The collateral damage caused by the second lockdown, which was championed by Cummings and Cain, could well end up destroying the Prime Minister they helped to create. As the two men prepared to depart, rumours that their central role in Boris’s life will be taken by “softer” women are already causing consternation. What, seriously? Allow a bunch of silly girls to sneak into the photograph of the Big Boys’ Club?
Let’s face it, they could hardly do worse.