A UK government minister has resigned over Boris Johnson’s handling of accusations that the prime minister’s chief adviser breached coronavirus lockdown rules.
Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the Scotland office and MP for Moray, said the furore over Mr Cummings and his decision not to apologise for making a trip across England as the pandemic was reaching its peak in late March “mean I can no longer serve as a member of this government”.
The prime minister was left to apologise on Mr Cummings’ behalf after his most senior aide held an unprecedented press conference on Monday to address reports about a 264-mile journey from his London home to the north-east of England.
The adviser defended his actions, arguing he and his wife had feared they had contracted the disease and decided to self-isolate on his parents’ farm so family members were on hand to care for their four-year-old son in case both of them were taken seriously ill.
But in a clear breach of the lockdown rules, he also said that he drove for 30 minutes to the local beauty spot of Barnard Castle to test his eyesight after recovering from his symptoms. Neither he nor his wife were ever tested for the virus.
Most senior government ministers have said they were satisfied with his explanation of events, but some Tory backbenchers continued to urge the prime minister to sack his aide, while others expressed their anger privately.
In his resignation letter to the prime minister, Mr Ross said “Mr Cummings’ interpretation of the government advice was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done as the government asked”.
The Scottish MP added: “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. 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 the resignation of Mr Ross was a “great loss” to the government and that he “entirely” respected and understood his decision. Several other Scottish Tories expressed their support for Mr Ross on social media.
Conservatives continued to express their displeasure that Mr Cummings had not been sacked. Midlands MP Harriet Baldwin, Simon Jupp who represents East Devon and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker all said or implied that the adviser should quit.
Support for Mr Johnson and his government appeared to have collapsed following the revelations about Mr Cummings late on Friday. The prime minister’s net personal rating dropped by 20 points over the weekend to -2, according to a poll by Savanta ComRes, while the government’s approval rating fell 16 points in a day.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, defended Mr Cummings on Tuesday morning, dismissing concerns that the behaviour of the prime minister’s chief of staff would undermine social distancing rules.
“We want to ensure that when people are out and about . . . they maintain social distancing rules,” he said. “I would separate that from . . . Dominic. He was not engaged in the flouting of social distancing rules . . . he wasn’t travelling for leisure purposes.”
Mr Gove said most “sensible and reasonable” people would make up their minds about the actions of Mr Cummings. “But what is clear is that he didn’t break the law, break the rules.”
He added that Mr Cummings had taken steps to ensure that the risk of him and his family infecting anyone else during the long-distance motorway trip to Durham was “absolutely minimised”.
Mr Gove said it would have been helpful for the chief of staff to have made his public statement earlier rather than leaving it until Monday evening, three days after the story first broke. He added: “I can understand how strongly people feel, there are people who have had to put up with an enormous amount.”
The cabinet minister also defended Mr Cummings’ claim that he drove to Barnard Castle with his wife and son as a test to ensure his eyesight was sufficient to drive back to London. “He wanted to make sure he was able to return to work and contribute in the fight against coronavirus,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. That had been “a sensible thing”, he insisted.
Meanwhile, Mr Gove confirmed that Mary Wakefield, the wife of Mr Cummings, had never shown any of the main symptoms of coronavirus — despite her having written an article in The Spectator magazine about having experienced the virus.
“It is the case that while Mary was ill it was not the case that she had Covid-19 symptoms, she did not have a fever or persistent dry cough,” he said.
Tory MP William Wragg criticised the efforts of Mr Gove and other ministers to defend the official. “It’s humiliating and degrading to their office to see ministers put out agreed lines in defence of an adviser,” he tweeted.
Leaders of the smaller opposition parties held a Zoom meeting at 11am to discuss what to do about the Cummings scandal. Afterwards, a Plaid Cymru spokesman said: “The leaders had constructive discussions and are currently considering the next steps.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, refused to attend. Sir Keir is understood to have concluded that with parliament in recess until next week there are no immediate sanction measures that could be pursued by opposition parties.