Johnson struggles to draw a line under Cummings row

Via Financial Times

Boris Johnson’s efforts to draw a line under the crisis surrounding Dominic Cummings floundered on Tuesday as more Conservative MPs called on the prime minister to remove his chief adviser and one minister quit in protest.

Downing Street had hoped Mr Cummings’ defence on Monday of his actions during the coronavirus lockdown — after he was accused by newspapers of breaching the restrictions on people’s movements — would defuse the controversy.

But Mr Cummings’ refusal to apologise and concern that his actions would undermine public adherence to the lockdown led to more than 30 Tory MPs supporting the case for ousting him.

These included several former ministers, such as Mark Harper and Caroline Nokes. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said Mr Cummings had breached the lockdown rules but stopped short of demanding his resignation.

Six opposition parties — including the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats, but not Labour — called on Mr Johnson to remove his chief adviser, saying trust in public health advice was being “severely undermined”.

Mr Johnson is expected to face further questions about his decision to retain Mr Cummings — who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum — when the prime minister appears before senior MPs who chair House of Commons select committees on Wednesday.

Dominic Cummings in the garden of Downing Street on Monday. He said he had no regrets about making the trip and insisted he had not broken lockdown rules © Jonathan Brady/Reuters

Mr Cummings said on Monday he had acted “reasonably and legally” in taking a 264-mile journey in March from his home in London to a property of his parents in the north-east of England to secure childcare for his four-year-old son in case he and his wife were both ill with the virus. 

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He also said he had no regrets about making the trip and insisted he had not broken the lockdown rules because they allowed parents to exercise their own judgment if they had concerns over the welfare of children.

But Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the Scotland Office, disagreed and resigned on Tuesday, saying Mr Cummings’ interpretation of the rules was not shared by most Britons.

“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 guidance of the government,” he added. “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”

Jackson Carlaw, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said Mr Ross’s resignation was a “great loss” to the government as he called on Mr Cummings to quit.

William Wragg, Tory chair of the Commons public administration committee, complained at how Downing Street had at the weekend persuaded senior government members — including chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove — to take to social media and television to defend Mr Cummings’ actions.

“We cannot throw away valuable public and political good will any longer,” he tweeted. “It’s humiliating and degrading to their office to see ministers put out agreed lines in defence of an adviser.”

Although Mr Cummings took questions from journalists for more than an hour in the Downing Street garden on Monday, holes subsequently emerged in his account.

Boris Johnson alongside Douglas Ross, parliamentary under-secretary of state for Scotland, who has resigned from the Government © Stefan Rousseau/PA

For example, Mr Cummings said he had foreseen a pandemic such as Covid-19. “Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning,” he said in a reference to a blog post he did in March 2019.

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But Downing Street insiders admitted on Tuesday that Mr Cummings had updated the article only last month to include a reference to coronavirus first being diagnosed in 2002.

Opinion polls suggested the public’s view of Mr Cummings was hardening. In a YouGov survey, 59 per cent said he should resign, up seven points compared to three days earlier. And 71 per cent said they believed he had broken the lockdown rules.

Another survey by Savanta ComRes highlighted the damage the row has done to Mr Johnson and his government.

Mr Johnson’s personal ratings have dropped 20 points during the controversy about Mr Cummings to -1. The government’s approval ratings fell 16 points to -2.

Health professionals also expressed concern that Mr Cummings’ continued membership of the government was distracting from its message to the public to comply with the lockdown rules to keep the virus in check.

Coronavirus lockdown advice on a sign in Brixton underground station in London © Niklas Halle’n/AFP

Karol Sikora, a cancer specialist and dean of medicine at Buckingham university, described the row over Mr Cummings as an “absolute farce”.

“This has massively undermined the government’s message — it’s not good enough,” he said.

But allies of Mr Cummings believed he would fight to retain his role as chief adviser to Mr Johnson because any departure by him would have negative consequences for the government.

One Whitehall official said were Mr Cummings to quit, other members of the Vote Leave team now working in Downing Street could also struggle to retain their positions. “That’s why there’s a real bunker mentality,” added the official.

One friend of Mr Cummings claimed he would not care about damage to the Conservatives in the polls.

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“If he drags the Tory party down to below the Green party in the polls, he doesn’t care . . . He’s not a Tory, he has no party allegiance, he does not rate anyone in the cabinet,” added the friend.

Health secretary Matt Hancock defended Mr Cummings at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, saying he believed the adviser had complied with the lockdown rules because they allowed for “exceptional circumstances” involving childcare.

“My view is that what he did was within the guidelines,” he added, saying it was important Britons abided by the rules. “I can understand why reasonable people can take a different view.”

Mr Hancock suggested the government would review all fines levied on parents for breaches of lockdown rules relating to travel for childcare, but officials subsequently denied this would happen.