In a single weekend, the government’s lead in the opinion polls has fallen 10%. The public are outraged by what they see as pure hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister is rigidly sticking by his advisor. Government MPs watch nervously as they see that hard-won confidence in the government crumble beneath them. Many voters had hoped that this government would be different and would throw away all the old trappings of elitism. The Metro’s front page headline, ‘Keep Elite’, therefore rubs salt into a sore wound. A strange combination of Church of England Bishops, Piers Morgan, and Owen Jones are calling for a resignation. Many are now beginning to ignore the government’s scientific advice. The man at the centre of this political whirlwind, known in Westminster circles for his iconoclastic – even dictatorial – style, is unrepentant. His supporters cry ‘Foul!’ and are blaming a biased media who are looking for a scalp to claim. The hashtag #scummedia is spreading. Supposedly, even The Mirror is now ‘right-wing’. Unsurprisingly, The Canary is nothing but supportive. But for most of the country it is clear: Seumas Milne was wrong to make his trip to Dover.
Few had expected Jeremy Corbyn’s radical-left Labour Party to win such a large majority in December 2019. The short-lived Johnson government, broken by endless political deadlock, had failed in its attempt make a break-through on Brexit through a general election. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was overwhelmed by Labour’s ‘It’s time for real change’. The man hailed as the orchestrator of this great victory was Corbyn’s closest advisor, Seumas Milne. Because of this, he is the darling of the Labour left, and hated by the Conservatives and Centrists. Any scandal involving him was always likely to raise the political temperature.
Despite criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early stages – especially worries that the pandemic was Corbyn’s excuse to create a socialist society via the furlough scheme – public opinion of the government had never been higher. There truly was a sense that everyone was in this together. John McDonnell, Jonathan Ashworth, and Chris Whitty all became household names. Giants began to stumble when a series of confused and badly articulated messages left the country bewildered about how to proceed next. When on Friday 22nd May newspapers reported that Seamus Milne had travelled from London to see his family in Dover, the government was slow to respond. On Monday 25th, Milne made a press statement in the Downing Street rose garden (for many in the press, provocative symbolism). Milne claimed that as his adult children were staying with him, when his son began to show symptoms of COVID-19, his wife Christina Montanari and he decided that they would leave his house in London. This was because Milne was in the ‘at-risk’ category, having had a lung tumour removed in 2013. They travelled to Dover, to stay with family there, though always maintaining social distancing. Milne claimed that the second 60-mile round-trip from Dover to Canterbury was in order to get his eyes tested. This latter claim has been ridiculed on social media and in the press. Some have also noted how suspicious it is that Milne travelled to a tourist beauty spot like Canterbury on the day of his wife’s birthday. Others have noted that the story doesn’t seem to hold together. It has been noted that Milne’s wife’s article of life in lockdown for the New Statesman never once mentioned the journey to Dover. The Prime Minister has strenuously defended his aid, claiming ‘any couple would do the same in such circumstances’. The public seem to disagree: one rule for them, and another for us.
The question is, were these truly exceptional circumstances? Was the 80-mile trip to Dover necessary? It is dangerous to enter into such waters. For many on the left, any critique of Milne is a critique of Corbyn. They passionately argue that Milne kept to the rules. Though Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s lawyerly defence of Milne has been cynically received by most of the public, it has been lauded as a legal masterclass by Corbynists. They are convinced that the vehement right-wing press is out to get Milne. Emily Maitlis’ criticism of the government on Newsnight was angrily perceived as another example of the BBC’s rightwing Brexit bias (the removal of Maitlis on Wednesday evening’s Newsnight, meanwhile, was seen by the right as yet another example of the BBC’s submission to the government’s agenda). I have seen such a dichotomised debate even in my Christian circles on social media. For many pro-Corbyn Christians, this is yet one more example of a hostile media which has been out to get Corbyn from the beginning. The Bishops’ critique was dismissed as typical ‘metropolitan liberal nonsense’, jumping on the media bandwagon and ignoring much more important matters.
It is no secret that I have been a critic of the Corbyn project from the early days and have felt that Milne has helped poisoned British politics through the exaggerated promises the Labour Party made in the 2019 election. Because of this, I am perceived as a ‘Blairite stooge’ by many on the left. This critique will probably be ignored by them. This is part of the problem of contemporary British politics. Since 2016, there has been an uncomfortably large chasm between those for and against Brexit. Brexit itself is simply the symbolic event of the National Populist breakdown of the Liberal Internationalist consensus in the UK. All political stances are coloured by where you stand on the issue. Even converts to Brexit or Remain are suspect. Such a dichotomy has merely widened since the Corbyn victory last year. This is not to say that a return to the Liberal Internationalist consensus will bring healing (though I am convinced that had Hilary Clinton, and not Bernie Sanders, won the Democratic primary in the United States, there would not have been a Trump victory in 2016). It is to say that we must not be so swayed by our prior political convictions as to call darkness light.
Whether or not Milne was abiding by the rules is not the question. To make it so is to miss where the anger lies. It is the ‘spirit’, or ‘principle’, of the rules that matter. From a Christian perspective, take for instance Jesus’ criticism of corban in Mark 7.11-12. Here, an individual could designate their financial resources as ‘corban’, that is given to the Temple treasury (korbanas), and therefore designated to God. This overruled the need for one to financially care for their parents. But this was to misread the fifth commandment of honouring one’s parents. But how can you honour your parents if you treat them respectfully yet ignore their physical needs? Here a good principle – giving to God – was manipulated to downplay the intention of another central commandment – caring for others. True, corban did not explicitly break the letter of the Law. Yet it did break the spirit, the principle, of it, and therefore it was an infringement.
Let us return to Milne. The government’s advice was clear: Stay at Home. No ifs. Not buts. People across the country made huge sacrifices in order to comply. Many were not able to see loved ones on their deathbeds. Others have lived through truly trying circumstances – cooped up in flats, having to cope with children when ill with the virus, worrying about their income. If Milne was breaking the rules, then for Corbyn to defend him is itself defenceless – Milne has become more important for this government than the law itself. But even if Milne was abiding by the rules, this reveals a small print not shared with the wider public. This is not to say that Milne wasn’t in a difficult situation. It is to say that millions have been in difficult situations like his but did not have the legal knowledge at hand to help. All they knew was that slogan, ‘Stay at Home’. And so they obeyed. For them, this is a clear case of Corbyn’s corban. Had Milne apologised at the press briefing, claiming to have panicked, Milne would have been humanised. This incident would probably have been behind us now. Had Corbyn even followed his old nemesis Tony Blair and fired Milne, perhaps bringing him back into government in six months’ time, then once more, the public would have forgotten him by then. It is the insistence of legal innocence that grates. It smacks of hypocrisy and double-standards.
Although I know many hate the idea of ‘alternative history’, but let’s play a thought-experiment. Imagine that deeply unlikely situation of a Conservative win in 2019. Imagine that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings – the mastermind behind one of the Brexit campaigns in the referendum – had done it again by organising a Conservative majority. Imagine that Cummings had done the same thing as Milne. As ridiculous as it sounds, let’s imagine that he even drove the 260-mile journey to his parent’s house in Durham (I know people may say I’m exaggerating here for rhetorical effect – of course, no government advisor would be as flagrantly stupid as to do that. But please stay with me here!). Imagine Cummings then made a 60-mile roundtrip journey to a local tourist beauty spot on his wife’s birthday, claiming that he was having his eyes tested. Let us imagine that his wife wrote an article about life in lockdown for The Spectator without once mentioning this Durham trip. Let us imagine that he was in a difficult circumstance, though perhaps with childcare. (Let us make him even more sympathetic than Milne, even if less at risk). Imagine that because of Cummings, trust in the government’s scientific instructions was now being dismissed by some members of the public. Dear Corbynist friends, would you not be baying for Cumming’s blood? Dear Brexiteer friends, would you not strenuously be defending Cummings?
As exaggerated as such a scenario might be, it at least gives us some political distance for imagining how we might act in alternative circumstances. Perhaps even most the ardent Brexiteers would admit that in such a circumstance Cummings should do the honourable thing and resign. Perhaps even the most radical Corbynists would recognise why the Conservatives would defend a figure like Cummings. If that would be the case in our alternative scenario, why not now for this very real situation with Milne? Yes, we know that the right-wing media frenzy would claim a scalp. But why is that more important than establishing governmental trust in the first worldwide pandemic?
From a Christian perspective, we can see the dangers of so tying political ideals to certain individuals that it is felt that individual wrongdoing must be defended, or at least justified. We see this repeatedly in US politics, in which many Republican Christians have defended indefensible statements by Donald Trump because otherwise ‘the Democrats will win’. On the other side of the defence, Democratic Christians have felt that they can dismiss the accusations of sexual abuse against Joe Biden, because otherwise ‘Trump will get a second term’. I understand the frustrations and horrors that Christians feel when their political opponents get the upper hand. Nevertheless, we as Christians should not be looking within the imminent frame, but the eschatological one. Temporary setbacks are nothing compared with the glorious future promised to us in Jesus Christ. This is not to argue for political quietism – having political opinions is a good creational gift of God. Long may they continue! It is to say that they are all relative to the polis of the New Creation. Lest we allow ourselves to be sucked into the partisan moral void which is growing within American politics, Christians in the UK must be able to stand against hypocrisy and double-standards in highest politics – even if you happen to agree with the political persuasions of those you critique – because hypocrisy and double-standards have no place in the New Creation. We must also stand against media frenzies which become baying mobs, for these too will be cast away when all things come to light. At all times we must speak as self-acknowledged hypocritical sinners, calling both politicians and media back in repentance to the Christ who deals with our hypocrisy and sin upon the Cross. If we can see ourselves reacting differently to the same events even in that unlikely situation of a Conservative win in 2019, then how much more should our reactions change when considering the time when God will be all in all?
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.