Dominic Cummings said on Monday he had no regrets about breaking the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, as the prime minister’s most senior adviser said he behaved “reasonably” in taking a 264 mile trip from London to Durham.
The Downing Street adviser took the unusual step of hosting a press conference in the Number 10 garden to address allegations that he had broken the government’s regulations. He defended a trip to stay at his family’s property in the north of England but admitted he had taken a 30 mile trip to a local beauty spot.
“I do not regret what I did”, he said. “I think what I did was actually reasonable in these circumstances,” he said on Monday.
He also admitted that he had not consulted prime minister Boris Johnson on his decision to make the journey. “Arguably this was a mistake,” he said.
It is rare for government aides to speak in public, as advisers tend to talk on behalf of the ministers they work for. The fact Mr Cummings hosted such a press conference from Number 10 Downing Street was a sign of his importance to Mr Johnson.
The official code for advisers states that “special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press . . . and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department”.
Mr Johnson has continued to defend Mr Cummings. On Sunday evening, he said the adviser 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.
The pressure on Mr Cummings grew on Monday when Steve White, the acting police, crimes and victims’ commissioner for Durham Police, said he had written to the force’s chief constable Jo Farrell “asking her to establish the facts concerning any potential breach of the law or regulations”.
Mr White later told the FT: “The model of policing by consent can only operate if you have the trust and confidence of the people you are policing.” As lockdown moves to a more relaxed phase requiring people to show common sense and personal responsibility that becomes even more important, he said.
“The issue here is a lot of people in County Durham have been flabbergasted with what they have seen unfolding,” Mr White said.
“I’m worried that the public perception could be that we can’t trust the government and we can’t trust the police.” He added: “My only motivation for this is to make sure we maintain the trust and confidence of the people of County Durham.”
He added that it would be for Ms Farrell to determine whether to investigate the allegations about Mr Cummings.
Ahead of a lunchtime 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 was 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 dismissed.
“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 added.
The front page of the Daily Mail newspaper on Monday
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.