Furious Tory MPs publicly called on Cummings to resign or be fired on the basis the saga has undermined public confidence in strict social distancing rules and distracted Downing Street from managing the coronavirus outbreak, which has so far killed at least 37,000 people in the United Kingdom.
But in a testy exchange with reporters on Sunday, Johnson said Cummings had followed his “instincts” and would keep his job.
“I want to begin by answering the big question that people have been asking in the last 48 hours: is this government asking you, the people, the public, to do one thing while senior people here in government do something else?” Johnson said.
“I take this matter so seriously and, frankly, it is so serious that I can tell you today I’ve had extensive face-to-face conversations with Dominic Cummings.
“And I conclude that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus and when he had no alternative, I think he followed the instincts of every father and parent, and I do not mark him down for that.
“I believe in every respect he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.”
The unequivocal defence has stunned even Johnson’s own allies. Some had expected the Prime Minister might try to take the heat out of the affair by announcing an inquiry into Cummings’ behaviour.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Cabinet Office should launch an inquiry, but stopped short of demanding Cummings resign or be sacked.
“This was a test of the Prime Minister and he has failed it. It is an insult to sacrifices made by the British people that Boris Johnson has chosen to take no action against Dominic Cummings,” he said.
“The public will be forgiven for thinking there is one rule for the Prime Minister’s closest adviser and another for the British people.”
Cummings is the co-architect of Johnson’s rise to power and was a key figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
He wields huge influence over Downing Street and has irritated senior cabinet ministers who believe he has too much power for an unelected official.
Eight backbench MPs went public on Sunday to criticise Cummings and urge him to resign.
“Today’s newspapers are a disaster,” said former Conservative minister Steve Baker.
“Enormous political capital is being expended saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and who clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home, without childcare from their parents, and instead risked spreading the virus by travelling.”
Johnson’s wife, journalist Mary Wakefield, had coronavirus symptoms when the couple drove to Durham in late March, but Cummings did not. However he developed symptoms within days and was bedridden for more than a week. It is not known whether the couple stopped for petrol.
The rules at the time said anyone with symptoms must not leave their home under any circumstances and should not visit family members for any reason.
A witness has claimed they also saw Cummings at Barnard Castle, a small market town about 40 kilometres from his parents’ home in Durham. Johnson was asked about this claim on Sunday but did not answer the question.
He also hit out at false reporting about the Cummings matter, but did not identify what was actually false.
A senior member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Professor Neil Ferguson, resigned earlier this month after he was caught breaking the lockdown rules to meet a woman he was in a relationship with.
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Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.