London: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under intense pressure to fire his controversial chief adviser Dominic Cummings for allegedly breaching lockdown rules, as public and political opinion turns against them both.
Amid a growing a revolt from senior politicians in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, a government minister quit in protest at the behaviour of Cummings during the peak of the pandemic. Opinion polls showed the premier’s approval rating dived 20 points into negative territory in just four days since the furor erupted, and a majority think the aide should lose his job.
The central charge against Cummings is that he ignored his own government’s coronavirus orders to “stay at home” when he drove more than 250 miles to his parents’ property in northeast England to get childcare support for his four-year-old son.
Cummings has refused to quit or apologize despite a weekend of savage attacks on both him and the prime minister from all sides. These allegations of hypocrisy against the aide would be highly damaging in Britain’s political culture in normal times. But when most of the population has followed Johnson’s unprecedented orders to sacrifice their own freedoms for the past two months, such claims become toxic.
Douglas Ross, a junior minister for Scotland, said he was quitting because many voters in his district simply could not understand Cummings’ actions.
“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,” Ross said in his resignation letter, posted on Twitter. “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
A spokesman for Johnson said the prime minister wanted to thank Ross for his service and “regrets his decision to stand down.” The premier is standing by his aide, a Downing Street official said.
While Ross is not a big name in the government, his decision to go public and resign unleashed a fresh wave of criticism of Johnson’s handling of the row.
Cummings hosted an hour-long press conference to explain his actions on Monday, and Johnson then mounted a second public defense of his aide immediately afterward, but the anger at the adviser has clearly not abated. After backing Cummings so publicly, Johnson himself is now paying a price.
A tracker survey of Johnson’s popularity through the coronavirus crisis, based on more than 1,000 U.K. respondents compiled by data firm Savanta, showed his approval rating had dropped to -1%, compared to +19% just four days earlier.
In a sign that Cummings’ statement failed to convince the public, a YouGov poll conducted after he spoke had 71% of people saying he had broken lockdown rules, based on a survey of 1,160 adults in Britain. That compared to 68% of people before the statement. The poll also said 59% of respondents thought Cummings should resign.
On Tuesday, Conservative MP Simon Jupp, a former aide to the foreign secretary, joined in the criticism and suggested Cummings should have quit. “I have felt a mixture of anger, disappointment and frustration in recent days,” wrote Jupp. “Hundreds of people have contacted me regarding Dominic Cummings.”
Opposition politicians are due to hold talks on Tuesday on the steps they will take to hold Johnson accountable for the actions of his aide. Still, loyal ministers continued to try to defend him in public.
‘Wrong or Mistaken’
“There’ll be many people who will think that his actions were wrong or mistaken, but looking at it in the round, I think his actions were reasonable,” said Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, defending his colleague on BBC TV Tuesday. “People will make their own mind up as they listened to Dominic’s account.”
A spokesperson for the Labour Party said the public wanted “at least an apology” from the aide but hadn’t got one. “It’s one rule for Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, another for everybody else,” the spokesperson said.
Cummings attempted to draw a line under the controversy with an unprecedented hour-long press conference in the sunlit garden of Johnson’s official Downing Street residence on Monday. But while he gave plenty of details in answer to a barrage of critical questions, he declined to say sorry and insisted he had not considered resigning.
“I don’t regret what I did,” Cummings, 48, said. “I believe I made the right judgment though I understand that others may disagree with that.”
At the time Johnson’s government was telling the public to “stay at home,” while anyone with virus symptoms — which Cummings then developed — should self-isolate. Cummings’ central justification for his decision to leave the capital was that he was worried about how his son would be cared for if both he and his wife fell ill with Covid-19 at the same time.
His relations in Durham would be best placed to help if the couple were immobilized together, he said. During the press conference, Cummings said:
- He did not take medical advice before driving to Durham, or tell Johnson of his plan to leave London, though he did inform the premier of his trip a few days afterward
- His illness had left him with “weird” eyesight and it was unclear if he was fit to drive back to work in London
- In agreement with his wife, he decided to take a “test drive” to Barnard Castle, half an hour away, on April 12 to assess his vision and fitness for the longer trip back to the capital
- He left the Durham property by car to collect his son from hospital, at a time when he was self-isolating with virus symptoms.
Durham police said Monday they are formally investigating whether Cummings had broken lockdown rules after a retired teacher reported seeing him at Barnard Castle, a beauty spot.-Bloomberg