Johnson struggles to draw line under top aide’s UK lockdown trip

Senior Conservative MP vents anger over PM’s failure to act in Cummings affair

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hopes of calming the controversy over his top adviser have been set back after a senior Conservative MP said he failed to make a “course correction” to end the affair.

Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, showed the intense anger at the top of the Conservative Party after Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules.

Mr Cummings was forced to explain himself after driving 420 kilometres to his parents' house in Durham, north-east England, when his wife showed symptoms of coronavirus infection.

He later claimed that he drove another 80km with his son, 4, to Barnard Castle to see if he had eye damage.

The controversy, which has caused immense political damage to Mr Johnson, was "eroding the government's authority during the biggest crisis in 75 years", Mr Ellwood told The National.

“This is a massive national distraction that has diluted the authority of government.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEP 02: Tobias Ellwood MP arrives in Downing Street on 02 September, 2019 in London, England as Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a garden party for all Tory MPs. A cross-party alliance of MPs is expected to attempt to legislate against no-deal Brexit as MPs return to the House of Commons tomorrow before Parliament is prorogued next week until the Queens Speech on 14 October, just over two weeks before the UK is set to leave the EU. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Mr Cummings's future was still unclear yesterday after a police report suggested he would have been reprimanded but possibly not fined after he drove Barnard Castle.

Mr Johnson on Wednesday hoped the issue had calmed after he addressed the liaison committee, comprising some of Parliament’s most senior MPs, and suggested repeatedly it was time to “move on” from the affair.

“It’s the duty of the prime minister to make a course correction to get us back on point," Mr Ellwood said on Thursday. "Yesterday he did not do that.

“If people are calling for Cummings’s resignation, whatever the mechanics are to correct the course, that’s what you want the prime minister to do.”

There has been fury across the political spectrum since news broke of Mr Cummings's trip to Durham in late March.

On Monday, he claimed “exceptional circumstances” around the care of his son excused his actions.

An investigation by Durham police on Thursday concluded that Mr Cummings did not breach regulations by isolating at the family farm.

But they found he might have committed a “minor breach” of guidelines that would have warranted police intervention when he drove to Barnard Castle on April 12.

Durham Police said that no further action would be taken against Mr Cummings, The Telegraph  reported.

“Durham Constabulary view this as minor because there was no apparent breach of social distancing," they said.

“Had a Durham Constabulary police officer stopped Mr Cummings driving to or from Barnard Castle, the officer would have spoken to him, and, having established the facts, likely advised Mr Cummings to return to the address in Durham, providing advice on the dangers of travelling during the pandemic crisis.

"Had this advice been accepted by Mr Cummings, no enforcement action would have been taken.”

epa08449010 Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, departs his home in London, Britain, 28 May 2020. Calls for Cummings's resignation have increased since news broke the Cummings violated lockdown regulations when he and his wife - both suspected of showing Covid-19 symptoms - travelled across the country to self-isolate at a family's property.  EPA/NEIL HALL

Mr Ellwood, who is chairman of Parliament's defence committee, said Mr Cummings's actions required some response.

“There is certainly an inherent unfairness that there is one rule for one and one rule for another," he said.

“The optics of it look appalling and that’s what needs to be addressed."

Downing Street is hoping the controversy, which has led to a substantial drop in public support for Mr Johnson, was passing with the government's announcement of a new Covid-19 contact-tracing system.

But Mr Ellwood said the fallout from the matter had been poorly handled, and the growing anger should have been dealt with early with a full statement.

“What is strange is that the prime minister did not call for an independent investigation rather than it being in the court of public opinion," he said.

"We have due process in this country and that’s what we should be going through.”

Mr Johnson has lost considerable political capital in defending his top adviser, Mr Ellwood said.

“Internally, there’s now a realisation as to how vital Cummings was to Boris’s thinking," he said.

There have been suggestions that Mr Cummings’s actions will lead to others breaking Britain’s lockdown rules, which have brought the death rate down.

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson answering questions from a Parliamentary Liaison Committee on the government's handling of the global Covid-19 pandemic in London on May 27, 2020.  British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw his public support suffer the sharpest fall for a Conservative leader in a decade Wednesday as he prepared to be grilled by lawmakers over his handling of the Dominic Cummings scandal. Johnson has stuck by Cummings despite a public and political backlash over his top aide's travels to visit family despite the government's strict rules to curb the coronavirus pandemic. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / 10 DOWNING STREET / ANDREW PARSONS " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

But with 37,460 deaths, the world’s second-highest toll, Mr Ellwood thought the public would still act sensibly.

“I believe when people move on from the anger that they realise we are at a very sensitive stage of recovery and will not flout the rules purely on this, because they will be potentially placing their own lives and others’ lives at risk,” he said.

The Member for Bournemouth said his mailbag and those of many colleagues had been “swamped” by people calling for Mr Cummings to be sacked.

“Were he to resign now, the wider damage being done to the party and the government messaging during the crisis would endure, so we are between a rock and hard place,” Mr Ellwood said.