The UK’s Conservative government has just seen its biggest drop in national opinion polls in a decade. It has come in the midst of a massive political storm over the country’s lockdown rules and whether the prime minister’s most senior advisor broke them.
It is an incredibly complex tale, involving sick parents, the interpretation of lockdown rules, politics, trust, Brexit, a highly controversial character, the media, and a beauty spot next to a castle - and all this in the middle of a pandemic.
But it is a story that has provoked incredible anger, with some MPs saying they have received more emails about it than any other issue ever.
At the heart of the scandal lies a perception that it is one rule for the governing elite and another rule for the rest of us.
More than 40 Tory MPs have joined opposition parties in calling on Dominic Cummings - Boris Johnson’s right-hand man - to resign. Some scientists advising the government have argued that the story has damaged trust in their public health messaging. Even some Church of England bishops want him to go. He has thus far refused to do so.
Cummings and the political storm he had provoked is far from unique to Britain. Across Europe, politicians have found themselves in the firing line for either breaking lockdown rules or at the least bending them in their favour.
Even as the row was brewing in Britain, pictures emerged of Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister, shirtless and apparently enjoying a picnic with his partner and two friends in a park. A spokesperson insisted he was fully complying with COVID-19 guidelines after some had criticised him for potentially setting a bad example during the lockdown.
Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen had to apologise on Sunday after he and his wife were caught by police breaking curfew rules by staying too late at a restaurant. "We lost track of the time while chatting and unfortunately overlooked the hour," he wrote. "I am sincerely sorry. It was a mistake. If the restaurant host suffers any damage from this, I will take responsibility for it." This came after Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to apologise for not wearing a mask amongst a crowd of people in a village near the German border.
In Germany itself, the liberal FDP party leader, Christian Lindner, was caught hugging a friend at a restaurant. “The spontaneous farewell hug on Friday was a mistake, as they, unfortunately, occur among friends after a private evening," he said. "It was not intentional... in the end, we are all human. I'm sorry!"
Last month in Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was joined by other officials at a solemn ceremony to remember the victims of the 2010 Smolensk air disaster, including then-president Lech Kaczynski. The public gathering was seen as violating the Polish lockdown, under which parks and forests were closed and citizens fined for flouting the rules. The prime minister, surrounded by mourners, did not wear a face mask.
The list of offenders is already pretty long and it seems to be growing.
Now, politicians are certainly high-profile, their actions are tracked and scrutinised more than ours, and it’s clear some fall well short. The public, I think, can be quite forgiving and we do naturally all make mistakes. But if it’s not a mistake, rather a calculated attempt to bend the rules in their favour, well, then it is serious. Rightly so, people will conclude that the rules don’t apply to those who make the rules. The breakdown in trust during a public health emergency, when we might face lockdown again, could prove to have deadly consequences.
And all this is in contrast to the actions of the Netherlands' Mark Rutte. On Monday, it was announced that 96-year-old Mieke Rutte-Dilling had died in The Hague on May 13. But Mark Rutte was unable to see his dying mother in her final weeks because he obeyed coronavirus restrictions against visiting care homes. He made a massive sacrifice, as millions have, and many might not forgive those who did not.
Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.
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