s she looked out of her kitchen window towards a farm in the distance owned by Dominic Cummings’ parents, an elderly woman described her reaction on Friday to the story that had caused shock not just in rural County Durham, but across the whole country.
“I have isolated for 10 weeks. I have not seen my children since before Christmas,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. She lives in a pretty village across the valley, with a pond and village green, where life normally passes quietly by with few disturbances.
Over the past week, however, the peace has been broken and feelings have run high. “If there were stocks in the village, Dominic Cummings would be in them,” she said.
“There is not one single person around here who is not disgusted. Everyone is furious because we have all played fair. People haven’t been able to go to funerals, they haven’t been able to go to weddings, they haven’t been able to look after people who are dying.
“I can’t go to see my friend in Barnard Castle who is dying and yet that four-letter word goes out for a trip.
“I was born in this county. I have never come across ill-feeling like this about anything. Everyone feels it is one law for us and one law for them. That is so unfair.”
It is now eight days since the Guardian and Daily Mirror broke the story of Dominic Cummings’ 264-mile journey with his wife and child from London to his parents’ home at the height of the lockdown, and much as Downing Street would love it to, the story is not going away.
Last Sunday – as the controversy began to dominate the news – the prime minister insisted that his most trusted and powerful adviser had done nothing wrong, either by travelling north or, when he was there, by taking a 60-mile round trip in the family car to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight on his wife’s birthday.
Boris Johnson’s defence of Cummings – when the evidence against him seems so clear to everyone – has angered and appalled not only the public at large, but also Tory MPs and the Tory press in equal measure.
The normally loyal Daily Mail reacted on Monday with an outraged front page headline next to photos of Cummings and Johnson, asking What Planet Are They On?
That same afternoon Cummings attempted an explanation in front of the cameras, portraying himself as a normal responsible dad who had left London because he was worried about his son.
During an extraordinary appearance in the Downing Street rose garden – normally reserved for the most important visitors – the man Johnson dare not sack was, however, completely unrepentant. He would not resign, he said, and had not at any point thought of doing so.
In response, MPs of all parties reported that anger from voters had been turned up to boiling point. And more media scorn poured down on the PM and his adviser. Proving that the story had dangerous levels of cut-though, even for a governing party with a large majority, the Daily Star broke its rule of ignoring politics on its front page by printing a cut-out mask of Cummings’ face with the words: Do whatever the hell you want and sod everybody else mask.
As the prime minister tries this weekend to get the country to “move on” from the Cummings row – and focus on his new track-and-trace plan to defeat coronavirus, while easing the lockdown slowly at the same time – that Daily Star front page precisely encapsulates his problem.
As one despairing Tory MP put it: “We can say move on and we can say let’s tackle Covid-19 together. But by staking everything on saving Dominic Cummings, we have lost the trust we desperately need to do exactly that. How can we ask people to obey lockdown rules when those at the top are seen to be doing as they want and are not obeying rules? The awful thing is that I think the damage is done.”
All last week the inboxes of Tory MPs were full to overflowing with emails from incredulous voters who could see the glaring contradiction in Johnson’s and his government’s position.
In the same press conferences, the health Secretary Matt Hancock was earnestly telling people it was their “civic duty” to self-isolate under the newly launched track-and-trace system if they had been near someone infected with Covid-19, while in the next breath defending Cummings for having done nothing wrong. “It is a complete disaster. It is not just about rule-breaking, it is the glaring contradictions that make nonsense of messages because Cummings is still in there,” said another senior Tory.
More than 100 Conservative members of parliament, afraid that they will never be forgiven by their electorates unless they condemn Cummings publicly, have now chosen to criticise him, risking the prime minister’s wrath.
The pressure on the prime minister will only mount further. Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, has already relayed the extent of anger on the Conservative benches to Downing Street. But this week, the 1922 will meet after MPs return to parliament, and the issue is expected to dominate everything.
Some Conservatives are doing their best to cool the controversy. Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, accepts that many are furious, but says there will be more important issues over which the government will have confront the people in months and years to come. “If people are very angry at the actions of Dominic Cummings, then that anger is probably only a harbinger of the greater rage to come when the forthcoming recession, or heaven forbid depression, starts to bite,” Walker says. “Then the actions of a worried father will be secondary to the reality of lost businesses, jobs and homes.”
Other Conservatives vainly try to claim the fuss is being whipped up by bitter and twisted leftwing and liberal Remainers who want revenge on Cummings for delivering Brexit for Johnson.
But saying that it is all politically motivated does not fit with the evidence, and most Tories know that. Our Opinium poll today shows that 81% of all voters think Cummings broke the rules, and that 52% of Tory supporters think he should resign. Almost half of 2019 Tory voters say their respect for the government they voted in has been reduced by the Cummings fiasco.
Writing in today’s Observer the Tory hardline Brexiter Peter Bone calls again for Cummings to go and dismisses the idea that it is Remainers stirring trouble. “The saga is now preventing the government from being able to get their message out clearly,” he writes. “Every announcement on changes to the lockdown rules, track and trace, and government support, is bogged down with questions about Mr Cummings.”
Bone adds: “I believe that Mr Cummings did break the rules. Now, if he had accepted that he had done something wrong, and apologised for it, as a fair-minded person, I would have thought that that would be the end of it. It is the insistence that he did not break the rules and the refusal to apologise that has outraged so many.”
On Thursday, as Johnson tried desperately to take stories about Dominic Cummings off the front pages and news bulletins, he announced his plans to ease the lockdown by allowing up to six people to meet outside or in each others’ gardens. They could enjoy barbecues together in the hot weather, he said. The announcement surprised many at high levels of government as they had not expected the loosening to be confirmed so soon. Some suspected it had been brought forward to distract from the Cummings row.
Now Johnson is facing new criticism for easing the lockdown too soon and risking a second wave of infections. As The Observer reports today, a group of 27 leading public health experts is warning that his refusal to sack Cummings, and his reliance on systems for track and trace that may not be ready, is a dangerous combination that has seriously undermined trust in government.
Other scientists add that the Cummings affair has blown a hole in the government’s messaging. Shona Hilton, professor of public health policy at the University of Glasgow, said: “In the weeks and months ahead, communicating the easing of lockdown restrictions is going to be a significant challenge requiring public trust in our leaders. This incident will make this challenge even harder for the government to clearly communicate and explain these rules. Politicians should not underestimate this challenge or take public support for granted.”
Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at Leeds University, agreed: “There has only been a very gradual decline in numbers of new cases of Covid-19 being reported each day. We are still getting them in their thousands and it is going to be very hard to test and trace new cases in those sorts of numbers. The margin for error is going to be very slight. And then Cummings does this. It was shocking. The message that we should just move on is not correct. We need to be led by example and not by allowing exceptions like this.”
Meanwhile, the Tories are falling fast in the polls. Their lead stood at 26 points over Labour at the end of March but is now down to four points. On Friday, a petition calling for Cummings to be sacked had gained over one million signatures. Our poll today shows 68% of people think he should resign and if he doesn’t 66% want Johnson to sack him. On Monday, Johnson said he had made clear his position on his adviser and that it was now up to the public to decide its view. It seems the public has now done so but, as yet, there is no sign the prime minister is listening.