Revolt brews over UK PM aide’s drive amidst coronavirus lockdown, police probe breach

Last Updated 27 May 2020, 12:40 IST

As many as 39 MPs from within British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own Conservative Party are in a rebellion mode on Wednesday, demanding the removal of the premier's top aide, Dominic Cummings, as the row surrounding his 400-km drive at the height of the coronavirus stay-at-home lockdown refuses to die down.

Several Cabinet ministers are also believed to be of the view that Cummings, Downing Street’s Chief Strategy Adviser, did breach the spirit of the rules and must step down in the wake of junior Scotland minister Douglas Ross’ resignation from the government over the issue on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a full-fledged police investigation is underway to establish any legal breaches of the guidelines.

Public opinion is also seen to be hardening against the senior adviser since he addressed a rare press conference in Downing Street earlier this week, with a new survey slashing the Johnson-led Tory party’s lead over the Opposition Labour Party by nine points.

A YouGov survey for ‘The Times’ found support for the Tories was down by four points to 44 per cent, while Labour added five points to 38 per cent compared with a week ago.

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is among the Tory MPs leading the party’s backbench revolt over the issue and has declared that Cummings committed a “clear breach of the lockdown rules”.

Now the chair of the House of Commons Health Committee, Hunt said the adviser's actions risked undermining public health advice.

“Sometimes people do need to resign,” he said.

Bob Neill, Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, said the row had become a "distraction", while Craig Whittaker, Conservative MP for Calder Valley, said that Cummings’ position was untenable.

“I respect he is taking a decision but what I can’t get my head around is why he can’t take responsibility for that decision,” said Whittaker.

Johnson is set for another barrage of hostile questioning over his decision to stick by his aide during a pre-scheduled hearing of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, the cross-party parliamentary committee with the remit to question a Prime Minister.

The hearing, later on Wednesday, will be the first time that Johnson would face direct questions from MPs since the allegations against Cummings emerged at the end of last week.

The hearing will focus on the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with the controversy over Cummings’ actions likely to occupy a chunk of the 90-minute session.

The senior Downing Street official has defended his decision in March to drive from his London home to his parents' farm in Durham, north-east England, when his wife had coronavirus symptoms, saying he needed to ensure childcare for his four-year-old son in case he also became very ill with COVID-19.

He had justified a second drive to a nearby beauty spot of Barnard Castle in early April as a means to test his eyesight for a planned longer journey back to work in London.

Cummings insists he "behaved reasonably and legally" and that his actions were in line with the coronavirus guidelines, a position backed by Johnson.

Local Durham police have begun an investigation into the issue by interviewing witnesses, according to the ‘Guardian’ and ‘Daily Mirror’ – the newspapers which first reported on the alleged breach. Officers also have access to software to track the movement of a vehicle used by the aide and there is also a consideration on whether the UK’s Highway Code was breached by his driving to reportedly test poor vision.

The government is keen to move on from the row, with UK Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick repeating the UK PM’s assertion that his aide’s actions were "within the law" and he retained the backing of the Cabinet.

"And so my view is that now we accept that and we move on because there are many, many more important issues that we need to be talking about,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Opposition Labour Party has kept up its pressure on the government, demanding action. Indian-origin Labour MPs, including shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy and veteran MP Virendra Sharma, are among those piling on the pressure.

“Something has got to change and it’s got to change very, very quickly if the public are going to have confidence,” said Nandy, demanding the removal of Cummings.

Sharma said he had received an “overwhelming response” from his west London constituents over the issue in a letter addressed to Johnson.

“His actions and your support of him have undermined our collective effort to beat the coronavirus and the sacrifice millions of us have had to make,” said the 73-year-old parliamentarian, who was hospitalised with COVID-19 in March.

(Published 27 May 2020, 12:40 IST)

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