London, United Kingdom | AFP | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday failed to draw a line under a scandal over his top aide Dominic Cummings allegedly breaching coronavirus rules as pressure mounted on the Brexit mastermind to go.
Johnson faces the threat of his government’s authority being undermined in the heat of a health crisis that has claimed nearly 37,000 lives in Britain and thrown one of the world’s top 10 economies into its biggest downturn of modern times.
Cummings was already a lightning rod for many Britons over his role in orchestrating the 2016 Brexit campaign that eventually saw Britain pull out of the European Union after nearly 50 years on January 31.
But he is also Johnson’s trusted adviser, helping him become prime minister a year ago and then choreographing Britain’s delayed exit from the European bloc.
Politicians of all stripes have been joined by scientific advisers and even some members of the clergy in condemning Cummings for driving across the country with his wife — while she was suffering from the virus — when the official advice was to stay at home.
“If you give the impression there’s one rule for them and one rule for us, you fatally undermine that sense of ‘we’re all in this together’,” scientific adviser Stephen Reicher told ITV.
– ‘Not a great sign’ –
Johnson told the nation on Sunday that Cummings — who like the British leader also developed COVID-19 — was following his paternal instincts by dropping off his baby son at his grandparents’ house while he and his wife were sick.
“I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent,” Johnson said.
But the ConservativeHome website published a rolling list of members of Johnson’s Conservative party who have publically called for Cummings to be dismissed.
It had 16 names on Monday — still too few to challenge Johnson’s 80-seat majority in parliament.
Yet the Politico website noted that the list’s publication “in itself is not a great sign for the prime minister”.
Education Secretary Gavin Williams did a round of morning TV and radio interviews on Monday saying that Cummings “did not break the rules or the law”.
The newspapers seemed unconvinced.
The popular Daily Mirror website said the UK lockdown “was dead in the water” because Cummings was flouting its rules.
The right-wing Daily Telegraph said Johnson’s defence of Cummings has “led to questions about whether people should now follow their instincts rather than the rules”.
– ‘Moral question’ –
Cummings is an enigmatic figure with an unconventional dress style and direct approach that has endeared him to Britons who are fed up with political grandstanding and the ruling elite.
His role in masterminding the Brexit campaign has been made into a movie that further fed the legend of his political prowess.
But the sight of Cummings being heckled by his neighbours outside his home on Sunday and fighting through a crowd of reporters on his way to his car on Monday morning — “Out of the way,” he shouted several times — could drain Johnson’s credibility at a pivotal point.
Britain is just starting to emerge from its coronavirus lockdown and the government wants everyone to keep observing social distancing rules in the coming months.
Leeds bishop Nick Baines accused Johnson of treating Britons “as mugs”.
“The moral question is not for Cummings — it is for the PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable,” the bishop tweeted.
Johnson was set to chair a virtual cabinet meeting focused on a gradual lockdown easing and then possibly speak to reporters later Monday.
Politico said the “judgement inside Downing Street is that all of the above is just noise”.