The saga engulfing Downing Street dominates newspaper front pages in the UK, as anger grows over reports that Boris Johnson’s top aide ignored lockdown rules to make multiple trips across England.
The government spent Saturday batting the first round of stories about Dominic Cummings, after it emerged he went from London to Durham while his wife was sick with Covid-19 symptoms.
Ministers said Cummings, who is often painted as the mastermind behind the Brexit campaign and Boris Johnson’s premiership, had merely traveled to his parents’ home to get help with childcare — despite the trip clearly going against the guidance that people do not travel to see family members and self-isolate in one place if they have symptoms.
But much of that defense appeared to be crafted based on the idea that Cummings had only made the one trip. The Observer and Daily Mirror reported on Saturday evening, however, that witnesses had seen Cummings near Durham again on multiple dates in April, after he had recovered from his Covid-19 symptoms.
Both papers, which worked on the story together, led their Sunday editions with the new claims and the calls for Johnson to sack Cummings.
Downing Street said in a fiery response to the latest stories that it “will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers” — a remarkable attack on two national papers that suggests they are not backing down in their defense of the aide.
But the calls for him to quit only grew louder on Sunday, when Conservative MPs began to break with the party line and call for Cummings to go. Influential backbencher Steve Baker said it is “intolerable” that Johnson’s government is giving up so much political capital to save Cummings’ job.
Simon Hoare added on Twitter: “Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone. It’s his cavalier “I don’t care; I’m cleverer than you” tone that infuriates people. He is now wounding the PM/Govt & I don’t like that.”
Cummings’ anti-establishment message, rough-and-ready demeanor and ruthless reputation have made him a controversial figure at the best of times.
But it is the manner in which the government is defending him — and the potential that they are severely undermining their own lockdown measures to save his job — that has angered critics.
“What worries me most is that some of the most senior politicians in the government have spent the weekend undermining laws and public health messaging designed to protect the public in the pandemic. All to defend their friend. This is what matters,” Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said on Sunday.
And the government is feeling the heat even from papers traditionally sympathetic to Boris Johnson.
The Telegraph, which counts the Prime Minister among its former columnists, splashed on the second claims — which were revealed just in time on Saturday night to cause a new wave of questions on Sunday.
The Mail on Sunday meanwhile dedicated several pages of coverage to the scandal, while the Sunday Times led on Johnson’s defense of his aide but noted that “voters demand Cummings resign” in its subhed.
Johnson has personally kept quiet during the weekend row, giving no interviews and making no public statements about Cummings. But it is increasingly evident that this political row has become a defining moment in the UK’s coronavirus response.