It is obvious that there are two major strategies being adopted by our enemies at this moment in the Covid saga. One is DOUBLE DOWN; the other is REVERSE FERRET.
Both of these phrases have been heard a lot in the last decade or so, and since I am interested in language I have looked into them a bit.
‘Double down’, v., was originally a gambling term, derived from blackjack, when one increased one’s stake on one’s cards. At first the phrase was used by analogy for similar adventures, involving risk or hope, but in the last ten years or so it has been used as a synonym for reaffirmation or confirmation of something to which one is committed: hence not frivolous but serious. The phrase has become bureaucratised. On the one hand, it means “taking a risk for the sake of a possibly good outcome”, and, on the other, it means “publicly reaffirming one’s commitment to an apparently worthy cause”. In practice, the bureaucratic meaning also conceals, sometimes only barely, the fact that what we have before us is someone “publicly reaffirming their commitment to an actually unworthy cause”.
‘Reverse ferret’, n., is a term which is attributed to Kelvin MacKenzie: deriving, apparently, from an original instruction by MacKenzie, then editor of The Sun, to place a ferret in a politician’s trousers, as it were (meaning to disconcert a politician with an awkward line of questioning). A ‘reverse ferret’ was announced the moment a particular ferreting strategy no longer worked, and so another editorial line had to be adopted. The phrase soon came to mean ‘a sudden reversal in an established political line’, and has presumably survived because of the suggestion that there is something shameful about the reversal. It may also help that the origin of the word ‘ferret’ is furittus, Latin for ‘little thief’.
So on the one hand we have the apparently strong (and foolish) figure, who ‘doubles down’; and on the other we have the actually shrewd (and shameful) figure, who has to engage in the ‘reverse ferret’. Here we have Machiavelli’s lion and fox all over again, those exponents of the political methods of force and fraud, now involved in completely up-to-date political tactics. But our lion is a cowardly lion, stupidly holding onto his position, hence, in fact, an ox or donkey. Our fox is, alas, a ferret.
The Spectator in its issues of August 27th and September 3rd has supplied us with some remarkable evidence of these rival tactics. It is worth preserving some of that evidence in amber. For doubling down we have Lee Cain, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. For the reverse ferret we have Rishi Sunak. But the ferret moved first, and provoked the donkeys to bray.
Rishi Sunak engaged in his reverse ferret shortly before it was confirmed that he would not be Prime Minister. Fraser Nelson, who interviewed him for the Spectator, engaged in a certain amount of paraphrase: which is a mercy for the reader, since Nelson’s prose is better than Sunak’s speech. But this means that some of Sunak’s own words at important points are lost. For instance the important answer to Nelson’s question about whether Sunak should have resigned if he disapproved of pandemic protocols is given in paraphrase rather than quotation: “To quit in that way during a pandemic, he says, would have been irresponsible.” It would be interesting to know exactly what he said and not have it paraphrased.
However, he did say:
I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off… The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy… I felt like no one talked. We didn’t talk at all about missed doctors’ appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it… Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time…[At one point, on the subject of education]: I was very emotional about it. I was like: “Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare” or something like that. There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious… In every brief, we tried to say: let’s stop the ‘fear’ narrative. It was always wrong from the beginning. I constantly said it was wrong… I was like: “Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one.” In the first year I could never get this.[In December 2021 Sunak spoke to Johnson]: I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this… I used the closest formulation of words that I could [to imply the threat of resignation – without actually resigning]… We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did. And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place… We helped shape [events]: with the fear messaging, empowering the scientists and not talking about the trade-offs…[If he had been Prime Minister] I would just have had a more grown-up conversation with the country.
What do we have here? Remorse and regret: remorse for what was done, regret for what was not done. But also rectitude, and a sketchy repetition of things which sceptics were saying right at the start – though without conceding that lockdowns were actually a mistake. The tone is weaselly, indeed, almost adolescent: and this is because Sunak is engaging in the reverse ferret: always a tricky art, and especially tricky if one is one of the first to do so – thus drawing upon oneself all of the opprobrium of the double-downers.
Double-downers don’t like reverse-ferreters. So just as Cain struck down Abel, so Lee Cain (Director of Communications at No. 10 Downing Street at the start of the pandemic) came to the Spectator a week later in order to strike down Rishi Sunak.
Rishi Sunak presents an alarming picture of what happened during lockdown – and one echoed by lockdown sceptics who claim that Covid policy was a disaster, stoked by fear and based on questionable scientific advice. Worst of all, they cry, the trade-offs were not even discussed. But none of this is true. I know because I sat around the cabinet table as politicians, scientists, economists and epidemiologists agonised over the extent to which lockdown would devastate lives and livelihoods. It was not an easy decision for anyone. Looking back, it’s clear that the biggest mistake we made wasn’t locking down, but doing so too late…
The initial modelling used for crucial decisions, we found out, was very wrong. A review by data experts recruited by Dominic Cummings had uncovered that, unless we changed course immediately, the NHS would be overwhelmed within three weeks… [Johnson was told of the Cummings model]: But not until a week later did the PM declare a national lockdown: one that saved tens of thousands of lives…
What I don’t recognise is the idea that, as Mr Sunak suggests, lockdown’s trade-offs were never properly discussed. They were highlighted daily by Chris Whitty in our Covid meetings. They weighed heavily on everyone involved. But we believed that – morally, politically and practically – lockdown was the right thing to do. Yes, it was a flawed, blunt tool, but it was the best one we had in a limited toolbox. We desperately needed time to improve NHS capacity, buy more ventilators, develop drugs, purchase PPE, and of course create a vaccine. Lockdown gave us that time… It wasn’t these actions we should regret, it was weeks wasted by a government too pusillanimous to act. The truth is that we locked down late because we had become paralysed by the fear of the trade-offs.
What do we have here? A different sort of rectitude, a firm rebuttal of any sceptical challenge to the established line, and the assertion of something which has become a standard ‘critical’ (though not actually very critical) position that the mistake was not in locking down but in not locking down early enough. Cain’s rebuttal of Sunak’s point about ‘trade-offs’ is of course weak. No doubt everyone ‘agonised’ over how lockdown would ‘devastate’ lives – but agonising is not considering costs and benefits, agonising is not reasoning or reflecting, and in fact agonising sounds very much as if the decision had already been made and so whatever agonising there was was in fact anguished anticipation of the difficulty of getting the public to accept the decision which had already been made: by Neil Ferguson, Dominic Cummings and others.
Cain also expresses loyalty to Cummings, so we should perhaps hear Cummings, courtesy of Twitter:
The Sunak interview is dangerous rubbish, reads like a man whose epicly bad campaign has melted his brain & he’s about to quit politics. Also pins blame unfairly on [image of a trolley, Cumming’s whimsical symbol for Johnson] & others. Will blog later.
He seems to be suffering Johnson-like from rewrite-history-syndrome.
What have we here? Well, evidently a far more formidable double-downer than Cain: one far too busy to check the spelling of ‘epically’. One of the aptest jokes in The Private Eye Annual 2020 – and one that Private Eye itself has signally failed to reflect on seriously enough in the pages of the magazine as events have proceeded – is that the year 2020 can be divided into B.C., Before Covid, and A.D., Anno Dominici.
Anno Dominici should be title of Cumming’s eventual book, should he be courageous enough to come out of the cellar of his Substack pages and write one. I am surprised that the phrase ‘Anno Dominici’ has not been taken up generally as a very good joke: the sort of joke which has a streak of truth in it. Of course, there are good reasons why the Guardian and the BBC would be reluctant to acknowledge that they were ‘cummingsed’ in 2020. But Ian Hislop should certainly ask himself why Private Eye was so willing to adopt Cummings’s new calendrical system without criticism.
We certainly need a good book about Dominic Cummings. There is a good article in the Guardian about his Substack scriptures by a Professor of Politics at Cambridge, David Runciman, but not much else. Tim Shipman of the Times, in his books on Brexit, was clearly entranced. The evidence is that Michael Gove was also entranced. But at some point someone needs to write a study of how such a brutal and brilliant Rationalist as Cummings achieved so much influence in Westminster in 2020 (and how his impact, as a wrecking ball in politics, was so much at odds with his impact in 2016). A ‘Rationalist’ is someone who thinks that political problems are problems to be solved, like problems in physics, rather than settled. The year 2020 should be considered ‘The Year of the Rationalists’.
The singular truth about COVID-19 is that while the illness may have posed a problem, this was not a problem (if it was ever a single problem) which could be solved by politics – since, by its nature, politics is not a sphere of solution but a sphere of settlement. The major failing of Dominic Cummings’s entire intellect is in his refusal, or inability, to admit this simple and fundamental fact. The failing is an important one: since in the West it is the figures who do not recognise this fact who are the greatest threat to our liberty and law: and who become bewildering enlightened versions of the despotic figures of the East like Xi and Putin.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: I have mentioned Michael Gove, so let us have his cardboard box of tuppenny bits on the subject, also supplied to the Spectator. Read it in the tone of Kipling’s ‘If’:
The accumulating crises – in energy, the public finances, the cost of living, the labour market and Ukraine – will test governments across the globe. Reflecting on how to deal with these challenges, I am sure the right approach is Marxist – specifically the path charted by the Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who enjoined on his followers “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. Be illusionless about the scale of the problems you face, assume the worst absolutely will happen, prepare for troubles to come not single spies but in battalions. But at the same time believe that honesty about those challenges will inspire confidence in your team that they can bring you bad news early and in full. Reassure them that it is better to have dreadful worst-case scenarios tested properly in advance, even if they are leaked to the media, rather than have them manifest in reality because no one was prepared to speak the bleak truth. And through honesty about difficulty, and immersion in the detail of what can be fixed and how quickly, progress is made. Solutions are tested, rejected, refined and then fixed. Trust is established, a sense of shared purpose instilled, difficulties are overcome. And what cannot be fixed can be faced with a fortitude strengthened in the common struggle. That was the approach taken in preparation for a no-deal Brexit and during the Covid crisis. Of course, mistakes were made. Many. They always are when dealing with the complexities of government when all the choices are bad and the available information is limited. But it is to Boris Johnson’s great credit that he recognised that at times of crisis, radical candour is required if radical solutions are to work.
What do we have here? More doubling down. But the tone here is not aggrieved, like Cain, or full of resistance and mechanised conviction, like Cummings, but full of what we should probably call ‘pomp and circumstance’. Put a pompous man, like Gove, in a difficult circumstance, like a pandemic, and the result seems to be a Conservative mind in a state of chaos without being aware of it. The most important word in the passage above is ‘Gramsci’. Gramsci, the Marxist: Gramsci, now famous for the phrase “the long march through the institutions”. But the imprisoned, agitated, resentful, intellectual Gramsci is hardly a poster boy for Gove. And everything else Gove says is bilge: Harley Street bilge, Reform Club bilge, Broad Waistcoat bilge: but it is, above all, doubling down bilge, and shows that Gove is actually a more alarming figure than either Cain or Cummings, since they are in earnest. Gove is not in earnest: not in the slightest.
Perhaps Gove was a trolley, too, like Johnson: and the vacuity evident here was a space into which Cummings over the years could pour his rationalism. But for that we also need a book about Gove.
I suppose that there is a logic to the arguments surrounding events of great political moment like COVID-19.
• First, there is confusion.
• Second, there is an established line.
• Third, there is scepticism about this line: which is suppressed or ignored. (Only sceptics care about realities; the exponents of the established line concern themselves with all the politics and propaganda made necessary by an unpolitical policy.)
• Fourth, there is the established line coming into all too evident conflict with realities – this is the moment of vindication of the sceptics, who, however, receive no credit for it. (They have to settle for being praiseworthy rather than being praised, as Adam Smith might have put it.)
• Fifth, there is the breaking up of the established line, first announced by the reverse ferrets: as those who formerly defended the established line abandon it.
• Sixth, the stauncher souls double down on their bet, and cry shame on the reverse ferrets.
• Seventh, the reverse ferrets are not only vindicated by events but begin to dominate the narrative, since the established line has almost entirely broken up, and only the most stubborn double-downer in his attic can hold onto his former, though always flawed, idea.
We have reached the fifth and sixth stage. The question is how long Gove on the pompous side and Cummings on the mechanised side will hold (or, in the case of Gove, pretend to hold) onto what was always a flawed idea.
It is likely that the narrative in the future will be controlled by the reverse ferrets. They of course will want to pretend that nothing happened and there is nothing to see here.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.