Boris Johnson faces a backlash from his cabinet at a meeting on Monday over his efforts to defend chief adviser Dominic Cummings for allegedly defying the UK’s coronavirus lockdown.
The prime minister said on Sunday evening that Mr Cummings had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity” but faced a swift rebuke from ministers, Conservative MPs, scientists, bishops and pro-Conservative newspapers who believed the aide should resign.
Mr Cummings is accused of travelling 264 miles with his family from his London home to a property in Durham after showing coronavirus symptoms. It was also reported he broke the lockdown rules by leaving the property to visit a beauty spot 30 miles away.
Ahead of the cabinet meeting, education secretary Gavin Williamson attempted to defend Mr Cummings and the government, but admitted he had not spoken to the adviser and could not answer further questions about his behaviour during lockdown.
“If he’s made it clear to the PM that he didn’t break the law, I absolutely believe that assurance. You wouldn’t expect someone to be not giving the absolute categoric truth to the prime minister,” he told Sky News on Monday.
But several senior members of Mr Johnson’s cabinet have privately expressed anger that Mr Cummings has not resigned or been sacked, warning that his presence in government would undermine the government’s strategy for fighting Covid-19.
One cabinet minister told a colleague on Sunday: “It’s hard to see how we can go on like this, expecting parents, teachers and the public to trust us when we bend the rules when it suits us. This lack of confidence will put lives in danger, and I worry we may never recover from this.”
The cabinet is due to discuss plans to further ease the UK’s lockdown from June 1. On Sunday, Mr Johnson announced that plans to partially reopen primary schools for reception, year one and year six pupils would go ahead.
Another member of the government said the prime minister’s defence of Mr Cummings in a press conference on Sunday had made the situation worse. “Cummings is now doing real damage to the government and prime minister. Anyone else would have recognised that by now and would have resigned,” the member of government said.
Following Mr Johnson’s efforts to shore up support, more Conservative MPs broke cover to say Mr Cummings should resign or be sacked. Former minister Tim Loughton said he had been “deluged by many more emails from constituents” calling for the official to be sacked.
“His continuing in the role any longer can only undermine the authority of the prime minister and the government at a time when both need to be completely focused on getting the nation through the next stage of the coronavirus crisis,” he said.
Jason McCartney, the Conservative MP for Colne Valley, said Mr Cummings’ position was “untenable”.
“I fully acknowledge that the perceived hypocrisy of the rulemakers potentially threatens the success of any future measures we may need to introduce if there is a second wave of coronavirus here in the UK,” he wrote on Facebook.
Martin Vickers, MP for Cleethorpes, said Mr Cummings was undermining Downing Street’s message on the lockdown and should resign “out of loyalty to the PM”.
Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, also called on the government to rebuild trust following the reports about Mr Cummings.
“Most who have worked so hard to abide by the rules and guidance of the past weeks will feel hurt, angry and let down. Trust has been broken. For the nation’s sake, rebuild it quickly.”
The Daily Mail, a pro-Conservative, pro-Brexit newspaper that has supported Mr Johnson’s government, also called on Mr Cummings to resign or be sacked. In a front-page editorial, the paper asked: “What planet are they on?”