U.K. 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 revolt from senior politicians in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, one government minister has already quit in protest at the behavior of Cummings during the peak of the pandemic.
Opinion polls show Johnson’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 child care support for his 4-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 the U.K.’s political culture in normal times. But with most of the population having followed Johnson’s unprecedented orders to sacrifice their own freedoms for the past two months, such claims have 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 leader was 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 has unleashed a fresh wave of criticism of Johnson’s handling of the row.
Cummings hosted an hourlong 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 percent, compared to +19 percent just four days earlier.
In a sign that Cummings’ statement failed to convince the public, a YouGov poll conducted after he spoke had 71 percent of people saying he had broken lockdown rules, based on a survey of 1,160 adults in the U.K. That compared to 68 percent of people before the statement. The poll also said 59 percent of respondents thought Cummings should resign.
On Tuesday afternoon Mark Harper, a former Chief Whip, became the latest Conservative MP to say Cummings should quit. “I have received hundreds of emails,” he wrote. “I would expect an adviser who had damaged the credibility of the of the government’s central message so badly and had become the story to consider their position.”
Six of the smaller opposition parties wrote a joint letter to Johnson, demanding he fire Cummings.
“This is an issue that transcends politics,” they wrote. “It has united people of every party and political persuasion, who believe strongly that it is now your responsibility as Prime Minister to return clarity and trust in public health messaging.”
Loyal Tory ministers continued to try to defend him in public, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock discovered Tuesday evening how difficult it was to hold the line on messages about following the rules while excusing Cummings.
“Of course I understand the anger that some people feel,” he told the daily press conference. Later he insisted that “it is incredibly important that people follow the guidelines,” and added that it was people’s “civic duty” to isolate themselves if they had an infection.
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 hourlong press conference in the sunlit garden of Johnson’s official Downing Street residence 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” and that 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 were formally investigating whether Cummings had broken lockdown rules after a retired teacher reported seeing him at Barnard Castle, a beauty spot.