UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been facing growing fury within the Tory ranks over his refusal to sack his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules and driving to his parents’ estate while fearing he and his wife might have COVID-19, reports The Guardian.
On Tuesday, the scandal surrounding Cummings gathered steam, with a succession of dramatic developments, such as the resignation of Minister for Scotland Douglas Ross, and a call on the Prime Minister’s adviser from at least 24 backbench Tory MPs to resign because of his actions and the damage done to the government as a result.
Despite an attempt by Dominic Cummings to lay out his reasons for violating stay-at-home guidance while displaying coronavirus symptoms in a press conference given on Monday, his arguments failed to convince many.
Acknowledging that Cummings had acted in the best interests of his own family, Douglas Ross, stepping down as a Scotland Office minister, said these were “decisions others felt were not available to them”.
“While the intentions may have been well meaning, the reaction to this news shows that Mr. Cummings’ interpretation of the government advice was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done as the government asked,” said Ross.
“I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didn’t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government. I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
Amid fury expressed by constituents, who had been complying with the government’s lockdown procedures in an attempt to slow the spread of the respiratory disease, some 30 Conservative MPs are said to have echoed the call for Cummings to leave his post. According to the outlet, eight Tory MPs were publicly critical of Cummings, with another three privately voicing the opinion he needed to be removed from his position.
A snap YouGov poll was cited as showing 71 percent of respondents believed Cummings had broken the rules, and 59 percent insisted he should resign.
According to the poll, forty-six percent of Tory voters and 52 percent of leave voters were of the opinion that Cummings should quit, despite the adviser insisting he had acted as any concerned father would have in his position.
The Prime Minister has staunchly defended his most senior aide, whose advice was critical in sweeping the Conservatives to an 80-seat majority, with the “Get Brexit done” slogan, at December’s general election.
Significant revolts are rare at such an early stage after a thumping election victory, but Cummings was already a divisive figure and his refusal to apologise for an apparent breach of the rules appears to have touched a nerve with the lockdown-weary public.
Calls Across the Tory Spectrum
Tuesday witnessed a succession of calls for Cummings to quit across the bread spectrum of the Conservative party.
Former chief whip Mark Harper said there was “no credible justification” for the drive to local beauty spot Barnard Castle, apparently to test whether Cummings’ eyesight was good enough to make the drive back to the capital.
Without echoing calls for Cummings to relinquish his post, ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt released the text of a reply to a constituent, where he wrote in connection with the scandal:
“What he did was a clear breach of the lockdown rules.”
Four other former ministers, Steve Baker, Harriett Baldwin, Stephen Hammond and Jackie Doyle-Price, were explicit about urging the adviser to quit, writes The Guardian.
A veteran Brexiter, Peter Bone, felt the press conference given by Cummings on Monday did little to justify his actions.
“The rose garden interview just confirmed to me that he had driven up to Durham when we were in a strict lockdown. He absolutely should resign… I have 400 emails from people and I’m sitting here with my colleague going through every one, and we’d rather be doing some case work but we just have so many people to reply to,” said Bone.
Labour also added pressure on Boris Johnson.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds wrote to Conservative opposite number, Rishi Sunak, to request whether the government modelled the risks of weakening compliance with the lockdown rules, and adding she was “deeply concerned that the last 48 hours have presented a confused picture” regarding the need to self-isolate for those seeming to display coronavirus symptoms.
Among those who jumped to the defence of the Prime Minister’s adviser was Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.
Gove offered a spate of interviews, where he made mention of the side trip by Cummings to Barnard Castle and cited the adviser’s explanation for it.
“I think he was wise to make sure he was comfortable before driving back down to London on the A1, an inevitably busier road,” Sky News quoted Gove as saying.
Gove added that at the time it was part of the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s guidance that one could drive to take exercise.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the minister responsible for the COVID-19 lockdown regulations, also defended Cummings:
“My view is that what he did was within the guidelines.”
When he was questioned as to why he had chosen to abide by lockdown guidance when he and wife were ill with COVID-19, Hancock told the Downing Street press briefing:
“We had childcare readily available at home, and Mr. Cummings didn’t.”
Lockdown Guidance Breach
Cummings made an attempt to clear the air on Monday, appearing at a press conference in the Rose Garden of No. 10 Downing Street, giving his explanation of why he drove 264 miles (425 km) from London to his parents’ estate in Durham despite suspecting that both he and his wife had COVID-19, at a time when lockdown rules banned nonessential trips.
Cummings referred to a caveat about parents looking after young children, claiming it legitimised his decision to drive to Durham:
“The guidance says you don’t have to just sit there.”
According to Cummings, he felt compelled to drive to Durham to arrange for possible back-up childcare from his teenage niece. The adviser claims he and his wife and child stayed in a separate building and communicated with his parents from a distance, by shouting.
As for a separate trip to Barnard Castle, 30 miles from Durham, taken after the 14-day period of his family’s isolation had ended, the official insisted it was to check if his eyesight was good enough for the longer drive back to London.
Both the trip from London and to Barnard Castle would appear to be breaches of the government’s lockdown rules.
Cummings refused to apologise for his actions, saying:
“I don’t regret what I did … reasonable people might disagree.”
During the briefing, Cummings claimed he had not considered resigning, but conceded he ought to have informed Johnson of his whereabouts at an earlier stage.
After the press conference, Boris Johnson reiterated firm support for his adviser, while saying he regretted “the confusion the anger and the pain that people feel … as a country that has been going through tremendous difficulties and sufferings.”
Johnson underscored that Cummings had fully explained his actions, and he, personally, found them plausible:
“I don’t think anyone in No 10 has done anything to undermine our messaging.”