Boris Johnson was facing a furious Tory backlash at all levels of his party last night after he attempted to mount an extraordinary defence of Dominic Cummings.
At a dramatic press conference in Downing Street, the Prime Minister claimed his chief aide had acted ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’ while making a controversial 260-mile trip from London to Durham during lockdown.
Mr Johnson insisted Mr Cummings had ‘followed the instincts of every father’ by driving to his parents’ farm after his wife developed symptoms of coronavirus. But he refused to deny that while in the North East, Mr Cummings had also driven 30 miles to go for a walk in the countryside in an apparent second lockdown breach.
And he failed to say whether he had given Mr Cummings permission for the Durham trip – or offer any apology for his most senior aide’s behaviour.
The Prime Minister’s unscheduled appearance at the press conference came after crisis talks in Downing Street lasting two hours.
Boris Johnson (pictured) was facing a furious Tory backlash at all levels of his party last night after he attempted to mount an extraordinary defence of Dominic Cummings
Eleven Conservative MPs had earlier broken ranks and publicly called for Mr Cummings to be forced to depart the government machine. However, it became clear last night that Mr Johnson’s comments had only fuelled Tory e affair, which critics fear will damage the reputation of the government and wreck public support for the lockdown rules.
That anger reached Cabinet level yesterday, with ministers – some of whom were ordered to publicly support for Mr Cummings on Saturday – growing uneasy over the mounting allegations.
One ministerial source said the affair risked torpedoing public trust in the government at a time of national crisis. ‘You can lose popularity, you cannot lose trust,’ the minister said.
Another warned the PM was ‘bleeding credibility’ to protect an aide who had delivered both the Brexit referendum result and his stunning election win last year.
One senior minister branded Mr Cummings an ‘arrogant idiot’, adding: ‘The fact that he is still there just shows how dysfunctional No 10 is. I am being bombarded with emails from constituents who are angry that while they have been making these incredible sacrifices and not seeing family, he’s just done whatever he wants. It is breathtaking that the PM is defending him.’
At a dramatic press conference in Downing Street, the Prime Minister claimed his chief aide (pictured) had acted ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’ while making a controversial 260-mile trip from London to Durham during lockdown
The senior Tory MP Simon Hoare, who had earlier called for Mr Cummings to go, said after the press conference: ‘The PM’s performance posed more questions than it answered. Any residual hope that this might die away in the next 24 hours is lost.’
New Tory MP David Warburton added: ‘As much as I despise any baying pitchfork-led trials by social media, I’m unconvinced by the PM’s defence of Cummings.’
Blackpool North MP Paul Maynard said: ‘It is a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’- and it is not as if he was unfamiliar with guidance he himself helped draw up. It seems to me to be utterly indefensible and his position wholly untenable.’ Veteran Tory Sir Roger Gale said: ‘I’m very disappointed, I think it was an opportunity to put this to bed and I fear that now the story is simply going to run and run.’
Some of the government’s scientific advisors also weighed in last night, with Professor Stephen Reicher saying: ‘In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.’
And in a fresh blow last night, Mr Cummings was facing the possibility of a police inquiry into his 30-mile trip to Barnard Castle to take a family walk on his wife’s birthday on April 12.
Retired chemistry teacher Robin Lees, who spotted him, last night told the Guardian he had reported the matter to Durham Police.
Earlier, Durham’s former chief constable Mike Barton said Mr Cummings ‘broke the law’ by travelling to stay in the area during lockdown.
On a traumatic day for Downing Street:
- The Prime Minister announced that some primary school classes will return on June 1, despite opposition from teaching unions – but said that schools with concerns will be given more time to prepare.
- Ministers prepared for a rare Bank Holiday meeting of the Cabinet which is expected to focus on the next stage of easing the lockdown.
- Official figures showed 118 deaths were recorded on Saturday – the lowest number since March. The total death toll has now risen to 36,793.
- Officials were investigating a tweet from the account of the Civil Service after the PM’s press conference which read: ‘Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?’
- It emerged that a new review will be conducted into Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network as Tory anger over China’s role in the pandemic intensifies.
- Ministers came under mounting pressure to ease the new quarantine procedures at ports and airports by agreeing ‘travel corridors’ with holiday favourites like Spain.
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak prepared to unveil cost-cutting reforms of the job retention scheme which could see employers asked to pay one quarter of their furloughed staff’s wages from August.
The PM decided to throw a protective arm around Mr Cummings after crisis talks with his mercurial adviser, in Number.
Attempting to draw a line under the affair, the PM said Mr Cummings had acted ‘with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives’.
Mr Johnson said his adviser had ‘followed the instincts of every father and every parent’ in travelling to a place where he could get help caring for his four-year-old son if he and wife came down with the virus at the same time.
The row comes at the start of a critical week for the PM in which he is expected to announce plans for easing the lockdown.
On Wednesday he is due to face a grilling from senior MPs, which now looks set to be dominated by questions about his judgment over his aide’s behaviour.
Mr Johnson last night denied that Mr Cummings was guilty of double standards, saying he had faced ‘very severe child care difficulties’ that could only be resolved by leaving his home in London and taking his family to Durham.
His wife Mary developed symptoms of the virus in late March and the couple feared they might be unable to care for their young son if Mr Cummings also came down with the illness, which he later did.
The family stayed on a property at the farm owned by Mr Cummings parents. In the event they did not need help with child care but did receive food deliveries from his sister while they were isolating for 14 days.
Mr Cummings (pictured today in London) has been accused of repeatedly travelling 270 miles from London to Durham (above) to see his parents, while the public were told to stay at home
Mr Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield (pictured outside their home today) was ill with coronavirus when they travelled north
The decision to travel hundreds of miles while his wife was ill appeared to break government rules telling families they must stay at home for 14 days as soon as a member of the household develops symptoms.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I have concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus – and when he had no alternative – I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent.
And I do not mark him down for that.’ No 10 yesterday denied claims in the Mirror that Mr Cummings had made a second visit to Durham after returning to work in No 10. Mr Johnson said ‘some’ of the allegations made about Mr Cummings in recent days were ‘palpably false’ But sources did not deny that the family had driven 30 miles to walk at Castle Barnard on Easter Sunday when ministers were telling people to stay at home to save lives.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for an inquiry, and warned that failure to sack him would ‘undermine confidence’ in the lockdown.
‘It is an insult to sacrifices made by the British people that Boris Johnson has chosen to take no action against Dominic Cummings,’ he said.
‘The public will be forgiven for thinking there is one rule for the Prime Minister’s closest adviser and another for the British people.’ Nicola Sturgeon, who forced out her chief scientific adviser for breaking lockdown rules, said: ‘I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.’
Tory fury explodes: In biggest rebellion PM has faced, MPs from all wings of party line up to tell him Cummings MUST go now
By Larisa Brown and Jason Groves for the Daily Mail
Tory MPs staged an extraordinary public revolt yesterday to demand that the Prime Minister sack his most senior aide.
In the biggest open rebellion of Boris Johnson’s premiership, a dozen defied party whips and called for Dominic Cummings’ departure from Downing Street.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker was the first to break ranks as he toured the TV studios and said that Mr Cummings ‘must go’ for driving 260 miles from London to County Durham during the lockdown.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge programme that Mr Cummings ‘holds in contempt any effort to hold him accountable to others’ and that ‘no one is indispensable’.
Tory MPs staged an extraordinary public revolt yesterday to demand that the Prime Minister sack his most senior aide Dominic Cummings (pictured today)
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker (left) was the first to break ranks as he toured the TV studios and said that Mr Cummings ‘must go’ for driving 260 miles from London to County Durham during the lockdown (Pictured right: Julian Sturdy)
Although the pair have a notoriously fraught relationship – with Mr Cummings previously branding a Tory group which Mr Baker chaired a ‘tumour’ – other MPs on all sides of the party then followed suit and demanded Mr Johnson act.
North Dorset MP Simon Hoare became the second Tory MP to call for Mr Cummings’ departure, saying he was ‘wounding’ the Government.
He tweeted: ‘With the damage Mr Cummings is doing to the Government’s reputation he must consider his position. Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone.
‘It’s his cavalier ‘I don’t care; I’m cleverer than you’ tone that infuriates people. He is now wounding the PM/Govt & I don’t like that.’
Damian Collins (left) and Peter Bone (right) also spokes out after the accusations against Mr Cummings
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, even apologised for tweeting his support of Mr Cummings on Saturday. He said the PM’s aide should ‘face the consequences of breaking the law’.
In a statement on his Facebook page, the MP for Harlow said: ‘I would first like to make it clear to residents that I regret writing the tweet yesterday in the way I did about the Number 10 political adviser and his movements.
‘I am really sorry for it. I do not support or condone anyone who has broken the law or regulations. Anyone who has done so should face the consequences.’
In his original tweet, Mr Halfon had written: ‘Ill couple drive 260+ miles to ensure that their small child can be looked after properly. In some quarters this is regarded as crime of the century. Is this really the kind of country we are?’
Tobias Ellwood (left) said ‘the ship is being blown off course’ as Caroline Noakes (right) said her inbox was ‘rammed’ with angry messages
But yesterday he said: ‘The tweet was wrong because many thousands of people in Harlow and across the country have suffered and struggled enormously during the coronavirus. I am sorry.’
Former minister Caroline Nokes also waded in, saying: ‘I made my views clear to my whip yesterday. There cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others.
‘My inbox is rammed with very angry constituents and I do not blame them. They have made difficult sacrifices over the course of the last nine weeks.’
Is cabinet now rewriting the rules with hindsight?
Ministers appeared to rewrite the lockdown rules yesterday as they rallied around Dominic Cummings.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested restrictions on staying at home for 14 days after developing virus symptoms did not necessarily apply if children were involved.
He also indicated Mr Cummings was entitled to drive 30 miles from Durham to Barnard Castle for a walk on his wife’s birthday on Easter Sunday.
This was despite the public being told only to exercise locally. The walk, which No 10 did not deny, was a month before rules changed to let people drive to the countryside.
‘The key thing is not to continue moving around,’ Mr Shapps added.
On Saturday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was ‘entirely right for Dom Cummings to find childcare for his toddler, when both he and his wife were getting ill’.
This was despite rules making it clear anyone with symptoms should stay at home.
Sir Roger Gale, the Conservative MP for North Thanet, tweeted: ‘While as a father and as a grandfather I fully appreciate Mr Cummings’ desire to protect his child, there cannot be one law for the Prime Minister’s staff and another for everyone else.
‘He has sent out completely the wrong message and his position is no longer tenable.’
As Mr Cummings came under fire from MPs, a big screen mounted on a van appeared outside his London home and played a clip from Mr Johnson’s March 23 address to the nation where he explained the stay-at-home coronavirus lockdown rules. It was organised by the campaign group Led By Donkeys.
Meanwhile, Mr Cummings’ wife, Mary Wakefield, a columnist and editor for The Spectator magazine, was seen leaving the family home yesterday.
At an extraordinary press briefing, Mr Johnson defended his aide and said he had concluded that Mr Cummings had ‘no alternative’ but to travel to the North East for childcare ‘when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus’.
He said: ‘In every respect, he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.’
After the press briefing, other Tory MPs came forward to criticise the PM’s handling of Mr Cummings. David Warburton, the MP for Somerton and Frome, tweeted: ‘I’m unconvinced by the PM’s defence of Cummings.
‘We’ve all been tasked with tempering our parental, and other, instincts by strictly adhering to the Govt guidance.’ Mr Cummings left Number 10 Downing Street just after 6pm, and gave no response to reporters’ questions as he drove away, six hours after first arriving.
- Latest coronavirus video news, views and expert advice at mailplus.co.uk/coronavirus
Boris Johnson’s statement on Dominic Cummings in full
I want to begin by answering the big question that people have been asking in the last 48 hours. And that is – is this Government asking you – the people, the public, to do one thing while senior people here in government do something else?
Have we been asking you to make sacrifices, to obey social distancing, to stay at home while some people have been basically flouting those rules and endangering lives?
And it is because I take this matter so seriously and frankly it is so serious that I can tell you today I have had extensive face to face conversations with Dominic Cummings and I have concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus.
And when he had no alternative, I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent. And I do not mark him down for that.
And though there have been many other allegations about what happened when he was in self-isolation and thereafter, some of them palpably false.
I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally, and with integrity, and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives.