U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a tense bank holiday Cabinet meeting this morning with the Tory Party in a state of near-mutiny over his decision to stand by lockdown-flouting aide Dominic Cummings.
The prime minister will gather his senior ministers via Zoom to agree a further tweaking of lockdown restrictions in the coming weeks, with Johnson planning to update the nation — and, he hopes, change the narrative — at another must-see press conference tonight.
The PM’s most senior aides have canceled planned leave and flooded what was a pretty empty half-term news grid with attention-grabbing lockdown stories, starting with last night’s rushed-out announcement on schools. But trouble is still bubbling up from below, with Tory MPs from every wing of the party reporting abject rage from their constituents — and letting their whips know in no uncertain terms. This is not going away anytime soon.
Quick recap: Multiple conversations with Tory MPs and ministers reveal six key points of concern this morning about Cummings’ actions and the way this episode has been handled by No. 10 Downing Street. Cummings drove more than 250 miles from London to Durham to stay at a property next to his parents’ house while his wife was ill with COVID-19 symptoms. At that time, the U.K. was a few days into its strict lockdown, though the aide says he made the journey to access childcare and acted within the law.
First — the drive to Durham: The central charge is a willingness to ignore what we all thought was clear and unequivocal “stay at home” guidance for symptomatic people, and to have risked spreading the virus at motorway services, petrol stations or anywhere else a family of three traveling 260 miles may have needed to stop along the way. A senior government official last night insisted Cummings had not broken any rules — but refused once again to say whether he stopped off anywhere on the long drive to Durham. You all saw Transport Secretary Grant Shapps fail to answer this same question on TV yesterday. It’s going to be asked again and again.
Second — a day trip to Barnard Castle? The same government official also refused to confirm or deny whether Cummings did indeed make a separate lockdown-flouting 30-mile road trip from Durham to the beauty spot of Barnard Castle on his wife Mary Wakefield’s birthday in mid-April; and again, you all saw Boris Johnson fail to answer this same question on TV last night. Sky News reports this morning that the “distinctive” car number plate noted down by the local man who spotted Cummings at Barnard Castle does indeed match up with “a car Mr Cummings has got into in the past.” The Mirror and the Guardian say a complaint has been filed to the police.
Third — the PR operation: One MP cited the “arrogance” of Spectator journo Mary Wakefield’s decision to publish on April 23 what now looks to have been a pretty misleading version of the Cummings’ family life in lockdown, leaving her employer — a proud Tory institution with 300 years of history under its belt — looking a little daft when the truth came out. (It was notable the Speccie was the first right-leaning publication to publish a furious opinion piece headlined “Why Dominic Cummings must go” after the story broke.) And the knee-jerk reaction on Friday night for “a friend” of Cummings to brief accommodating journos that he “isn’t remotely bothered” by this story went down like a cold cup of sick among almost every Tory MP Playbook has spoken to, given the sensitive context and the serious impact the revelations are having upon party and government alike.
Fourth — the changing story: Equally enraging for Tory MPs has been No. 10’s failure to agree upon a credible story that ties in with what most people understood the lockdown guidance to be; and indeed with the police’s own version of events. The decision to exploit a loophole about exceptional circumstances for people unable to care for vulnerable people looks barely credible on the face of it, given thousands and thousands of parents have been in this exact same position but managed to stay at home, and given Cummings was well enough at the time to drive 260 miles across the country. Crucially, of course, there may be extenuating circumstances here we don’t know about — but if so, No. 10 is point-blank refusing to say. And so the questions continue.
Fifth — the impact on public health: It was pretty jaw-dropping to watch the unfortunate Grant Shapps being asked to effectively rewrite vital public health advice on the hoof as he was given the impossible task of answering journalists’ questions over the weekend. Asked if symptomatic people were now allowed to get in their cars and go and isolate near to their families, Shapps said: “You have to get yourself sort of locked down and do that in the best and most practical way. And that will be different for different people under whatever circumstances their particular family circumstances happen to dictate.” You may not have seen that one on a government poster last month.
Sixth — the damage to the Tory Party: Politically, this is the most worrying charge of all for many Tory MPs, and the one that Keir Starmer is clearly going to be hanging around this government’s neck every week forever more — that it’s “one rule for them, and another for the rest of us.” One rule for a Westminster elite, and another for the rest who are missing their families, worrying about their children, mourning their dead from afar. As Nigel Farage will tell you, this is one of the most potent attack lines in modern politics — and it looks like Cummings has handed it to his opponents on a plate.
Screaming blue murder
Admittedly it’s a hot bank holiday weekend and nobody’s got anything better to do, but it really is hard to overstate the depth of anger over all of this today. We’ll start with the various groups of furious Tory MPs, move through the police, the clergy and the scientists, before getting on to the right-wing press and Brexiteer commentators … The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed this list is not *entirely* made up of “campaigning” left-wing newspapers and bonkers Remoaners, as far as we can tell.
Tory MPs (public): ConservativeHome now has a rolling live blog keeping tally of all the Tory MPs who have publicly called for Cummings to go, which in itself is not a *great* sign for the prime minister. Currently it stands at 16 MPs, with a 17th on the brink after pronouncing himself “unconvinced by the PM’s defense.” The public list includes Remainers and Brexiteers; former ministers and former whips; select committee chairs and normally silent backbenchers. These are definitely not all disgruntled MPs with grudges, and it doesn’t make happy reading for No. 10.
Tory MPs (private): Every political journalists’ text messages are chock-full of Tory fury this morning, and Playbook’s are no exception. “Utter sh*t show,” a Remain-voting MP from a Northern marginal says. “Needs to go.” The MP said constituents were “massively upset … Inbox has gone mad after press conference … Not round-robins either.” A Brexit-backing Tory MP in a marginal seat adds: “By appearing to be oblivious to why so many people are angry, they just look like they’re backing up their chum. Should have accepted it was wrong … Dom apologizes … We all move on. Now this drags on for days, and whether you keep him or sack him, you still look weak.”
Tory MPs (WhatsApp groups): The Telegraph reports how Tory MPs are currently sharing messages on a WhatsApp group sent to them by angry constituents “demanding to know why they had been forced to miss funerals or other important events, if the rules were open to interpretation.” Ouch.
Tory MPs (‘Red Wall’): Sky News and the i newspaper both report particular rage among the 2019 intake of Tory MPs who breached Labour’s “red wall” heartlands at the last election. Sky’s Tamara Cohen tells in this must-read Twitter thread how one MP received 250 emails on the issue; just two of them in support of Cummings. “This is the biggest public health issue for generations, and this is blowing up the government’s message we have been ramming home for weeks. We’re bloody mad,” the MP says. The i’s Richard Vaughan says red wall Tories are even backing Labour’s call for an inquiry. “Those of us across the North are absolutely livid about this,” one says. “Collectively we believe the decision to stand by Cummings goes against everything we’ve been saying to our constituents over the last few months.”
Tory grandees: “My subscription to the @Conservatives is overdue,” tweets former MP Bob Walter. “After watching the leader of the party on TV tonight it may be overdue for a little longer. I have been a party member for 55 yrs and sat on the Conservative benches in the Commons for 18 yrs. Heavy heart and sorely disappointed.”
Junior ministers: One minister tells Sky’s Beth Rigby that what they witnessed at yesterday’s press conference was “the PM’s authority with the British people draining away in front of my very eyes.” Another tells Playbook it is a “big bet” from No. 10 that people won’t care about the actions of an unelected adviser. “The worrying thing is that the constituents getting in touch are not the usual suspects,” the minister said, before adding: “But I think we always exaggerate how much these massive-feeling stories matter in the long term. Will he [Cummings] be around by the next election?”
Senior ministers: One unnamed Cabinet minister tell the Times that Johnson “has sacrificed his own credibility to save Dominic Cummings. He is burning away his personal brand, his trust, to save Dom.” Another says: “You can lose popularity, you cannot lose trust. It’s not a ‘bubble’ story. It’s on the front page of every newspaper, it is distracting from what the government should be doing.” A third is quoted in the FT as telling a colleague: “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.” The Telegraph quotes a “Cabinet source” who says: “The discussion among Cabinet ministers at the moment is that this will cost lives. People will look at this and decide that if Dom can ignore the rules so can they, and the consequence of that will be that people get infected who would have otherwise stayed at home.”
The police: The Times reports on fury within Durham Constabulary that No. 10 was, erm, somewhat economical with the truth about whether Cummings’ family had been spoken to by the cops. “Police contradicted claims by Downing Street that Mr Cummings’s father spoke to an officer about security issues, not about the alleged breach of lockdown rules,” the newspaper reports. “A source told the Times that although Robert Cummings did call Durham to speak about security, it became immediately obvious that lockdown guidance had been breached, and he was given ‘words of advice.’ He was told that under the rules his son should have stayed in London. Senior policing figures are angry that the government’s briefing gave the impression that ‘Durham have been anything other than fully truthful and sensitive in the handling of this.'”
The scientists: Particularly damaging for Boris Johnson was the outpouring of anger last night from behavioral scientists who have been advising the government’s response. Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) took to Twitter last night to attack the PM’s handling of the affair. Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the SPI-B, wrote: “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.” A number of his colleagues tweeted full agreement. Reicher tells the Times that “if as a consequence the measures become less effective, the infection will spread and people will die.”
The clergy: The Tory faithful will likely be unnerved by the fact more than a dozen Church of England bishops issued statements attacking Boris Johnson’s approach. “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronized and treated by a PM as mugs?” Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines asked on Twitter. “The moral question is not for Cummings — it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behavior acceptable. What are we to teach our children? (I ask as a responsible father.)” There are 14 angry bishops and counting — the Religion Media Centre is keeping a tally of the best quotes.
The neighbors: Watch here as Dominic Cummings is jeered and heckled by furious neighbors as he returns home to his Islington townhouse last night.
The Brexiteer press: The Daily Mail comes out all guns blazing this morning with a front-page comment piece calling for Cummings to go. “What planet are they on?” the splash headline asks. Inside the paper gives 10 pages of coverage to Cummings and the Downing Street response — and barely a word of it supportive to Boris Johnson.
The Brexiteer commentators: “That was one of the worst press conferences I have ever seen,” LBC’s Iain Dale wrote last night. “I wanted to hide behind the couch … Seriously, what on earth was Boris Johnson thinking? … Jesus wept. Car crash doesn’t really cover it.” TalkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “I will forever be grateful to Dom Cummings for delivering Brexit … But. No one is above the law. Especially during a pandemic. It’s too late for an apology now. He has to go.” ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie added: “I’m really embarrassed to have ever backed Boris Johnson for high office.”
The cricket legend: Even cricket commentator David “Bumble” Lloyd is furious. And if that’s not a sign of cut-through, I don’t know what is.
So what happens next?
Erm, nothing: Boris Johnson has an all-powerful 80-seat majority in parliament, and is four years out from a general election — and is entitled to employ whomever he likes as a special adviser. The judgment inside Downing Street is that all of the above is just “noise,” and that this episode will quickly be forgotten amid the enormity of the crisis facing Britain and the wider world. Aides will be delighted with supportive(ish) front pages from the Sun, the Times, the Express and the Telegraph this morning, and they will point too to this new YouGov polling (gleefully flagged by Guido on Friday) showing public satisfaction with the media coverage of the crisis has tumbled throughout the past month. The press will be blamed for whipping up a storm, and the story — they hope — moved on to something new.