LONDON (AP) – Dominic Cummings helped Boris Johnson win power by pitting the people against the elite. Johnsonâ€™s Conservative administration has branded itself â€œthe Peopleâ€™s Government.â€
The prime ministerâ€™s populist appeal has been hammered by news that, as the coronavirus outbreak raged, chief adviser Cummings drove 250 miles (400 kilometers) to his parentsâ€™ house while he was falling ill with suspected COVID-19 – allegedly flouting lockdown rules that the government had imposed on the rest of the country.
Cummings says he traveled to the family farm in northeast England so that extended family could care for his 4-year-old son if he and his wife both became sick. But that explanation cut little ice with many Britons, who say they have endured isolation, anxiety and sometimes loss in order to follow government advice to â€œStay Home … Save Lives.â€
On Tuesday, junior Scotland minister Douglas Ross quit Johnsonâ€™s Conservative government, saying â€œthe vast majority of peopleâ€ didn’t agree with Cummingsâ€™ action.
â€œI have constituents who didnâ€™t get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didnâ€™t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government,â€ Ross wrote in a resignation letter. â€œI cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.â€
Johnson, however, appears determined to hang onto an aide who has been dubbed â€œBorisâ€™ brain,â€ even if it fractures his government and erodes Britainâ€™s response to the pandemic.
Arguably, Johnson owes his job to Cummings, a self-styled disrupter who disdains the political establishment and slouches through the halls of government in sweatpants and T-shirts.
In 2016, Cummings honed populist messages that helped the â€œleaveâ€ campaign, co-led by Johnson, win Britain’s EU membership referendum. He is credited with coming up with the campaignâ€™s powerfully simple slogan: â€œTake back control.â€ He also hired a firm linked to Cambridge Analytica, which detractors say unleashed the poison of data-harvesting and social-media manipulation into the British political bloodstream.
When Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 after interminable battles over Brexit defeated his predecessor Theresa May, he hired Cummings as his right-hand man. In December, Johnson won a commanding majority in Parliament with a ruthlessly focused election campaign and another simple slogan: â€œGet Brexit done.â€
Johnson, who was sick with COVID-19 around the same time as Cummings and spent three nights in intensive care, has backed his adviser, saying Cummings â€œfollowed the instincts of every father and every parent.â€
Cummings denies breaking regulations, imposed on March 23, that said people shouldn’t leave home except for trips to get essential supplies, exercise and emergencies. At a long, unrepentant news conference on Monday, Cummings argued that his need to ensure child care for his son was an â€œexceptional situation.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think there is one rule for me and one rule for other people,â€ Cummings insisted. But thatâ€™s exactly how it looks to many.
Senior police officers said Cummingsâ€™ interpretation of the rules made it harder to enforce the lockdown, and scientists said it could undermine messaging about the importance of social distancing.
â€œIt threatens to undermine that sense of community if a figure as prominent as Dominic Cummings and if the prime minister himself starts undermining that â€˜weâ€™ message and starts talking about â€˜I,â€™â€ said Stephen Reicher, a behavioral psychologist who helps advise the government.
Cummingsâ€™ news conference – a rare on-the-record outing for a backroom figure who prefers to work behind the scenes – failed to answer all the questions about his trip.
Some asked how Cummings could justify moving from the epicenter of the outbreak in London to a region with fewer cases and sparser medical resources.
Cummings revealed that while he was up north, his son was rushed to a local hospital by ambulance after becoming sick. Cummings, then ill with suspected coronavirus, drove to pick him up the next day. Did that risk spreading the virus?
Some questioned Cummingsâ€™ justification for taking a half-hour drive to a scenic castle town when he was convalescing. Cummings explained that he was testing whether his eyesight, which had been affected by illness, had recovered.
The government tried Tuesday to draw a line under the episode.
â€œHe didnâ€™t break the law. He didnâ€™t break the rules. He sought to protect his family,â€ Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said.
But there were ominous signs for the government that the furor wasn’t dying down. Opinion polls suggested a majority felt Cummings ought to resign. The conservative Daily Mail newspaper, usually supportive of the government, asked: â€œHow can he survive?â€
â€œWe cannot throw away valuable public & political good will any longer,â€ tweeted Conservative lawmaker William Wragg. â€œItâ€™s humiliating & degrading to their office to see ministers put out agreed lines in defence of an advisor.â€
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