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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands by his rule-bending strategist as lawmakers cry foul

British lawmakers criticized Prime Minister Boris Johnson on May 27 for failing to dismiss a top aide after accusations that he broke lockdown rules in March. (Video: The Washington Post)
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LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a tough round of angry queries, serious skepticism and even mockery from British lawmakers on Wednesday over his continued support for his top political strategist, Dominic Cummings, who left his London home when he and his wife were stricken by the novel coronavirus to travel 260 miles to a family home.

Cummings and his alleged flouting of strict lockdown rules at the peak of the epidemic have dominated news cycles here for five days. The scandal has cost Johnson support in the polls, raised questions about fair play and created backlash over the lockdown, just when the government is trying to convince parents that it’s safe to send their children back to school.

Even tabloids that traditionally back Tory leaders have lashed into Cummings and Johnson, with the Daily Mail’s front page asking, “What Planet Are They On?”

The affair has outraged ordinary citizens, many of whom are confused about the guidelines and complain that there is one set of rules for the rulemakers and another for everyone else.

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Critics charge that the scandal has undercut trust in the government and its public health messaging, right when it is needed most, as Johnson slowly begins to steer a tricky passage out of a months-long shutdown.

Raw emotion was on display Wednesday when the prime minister appeared via videoconference link from 10 Downing Street to answer questions from Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee.

Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper snapped at Johnson, “We need you to get this right, now. So can you tell us — you have a choice between protecting Dominic Cummings and putting the national interest first. Which will it be, prime minister?”

Pete Wishart, a Scottish National Party politician, told Johnson, “I actually think that you’ve been quite brave. The way that you’ve been prepared to sacrifice the credibility and popularity of your own government, just to stand by your man.”

Even Tories piled on. Conservative member Simon Hoare told the prime minister, “People are very upset, do you understand this?”

Johnson offered a careful non-apology, saying, “I know there is a great political interest in this, and I totally understand the public indignation, but . . . I have said what I have said about the whole business, and it would be much better if we could move on.”

He dismissed the scolding questions as “political ding-dong.” He repeated an earlier defense, telling the lawmakers that “a lot of allegations turned out to be totally false.” When asked what accusations were false, he declined to answer.

During the session, Hoare warned the prime minister that the public will be “far less energetic” about obeying future restrictions as “a direct result of the activities of your senior adviser.”

Halfway through the 90-minute hearing, another Conservative lawmaker, Giles Watling, watching from home, tweeted that he gave Johnson props “for sticking by his man” but that Cummings must go. “His continued presence at the heart of government at this time is an unwanted distraction.”

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Johnson’s defense of his strategist has come at a high price.

Last month, Britons were rooting for Johnson, who was so sick with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, that he was put on oxygen in an intensive care unit. Now, polling by Savanta Group shows that Johnson’s personal approval ratings have dived 20 points in four days.

The flap over Cummings, too, comes as Johnson’s government has been defending its handling of the crisis while preparing the country for new “test, trace and treat” policies, which will involve more intrusive actions by public health trackers and government apps. Britain has the highest death toll in Europe.

Cummings has defended his actions, saying he was concerned that his 4-year-old could be left without child care if both he and his wife fell ill, and so he wanted to be in Durham, near his family. Johnson has said that Cummings acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity.” He said Cummings was just following his instincts as a parent.

In his resignation letter on Tuesday, Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the Scotland Office, said, “I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who did not visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government.”

Jane Green, a professor of politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, said she couldn’t think of another political crisis in which the entire country feels slighted about their actions and choices.

“This is personal for people,” she said. “It’s not just a scandal in government that doesn’t bear on someone’s life; it’s really personal.”

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About 40 Conservatives have joined the chorus of opposition lawmakers calling on Cummings to go. A poll published in the Daily Mail on Wednesday shows that 55 percent of Conservative Party voters think Cummings should resign.

Will Jennings, a professor of political science at the University of Southampton, said that Cummings has been “pivotal to the Johnson project” and that Johnson doesn’t want to lose him. Jennings noted that Johnson is a “brilliant performer” but “needs someone with a strategic view to guide the government.”

And that someone has been Cummings, who in Johnson’s winning 2016 Brexit campaign “demonstrated he’s extremely capable in terms of political strategy and communications,” and who likewise was a force in the 2019 general election, which saw Johnson win a thumping majority. “His role in that hasn’t been forgotten,” Jennings said.

But the man who has a reputation for expertly judging the public mood appears to have misstepped this time, as people up and down the country jump on social media or radio phone-in shows to call for Cummings’s resignation.

Protesters have heckled him from outside his London home. “I’ve had no child care since the beginning!” shouted one woman as Cummings walked by. “One rule for you, one rule for everyone else,” another yelled.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at London’s Queen Mary University, said the scandal “could be quite damaging” because it upends Johnson’s narrative that all Brits are in the same boat.

The government’s response to the crisis “relies on everybody feeling we are all in this together, and if it seems that is no longer the case, or maybe never has been the case, then I think that’s bound to rebound badly on the incumbent prime minister and his government,” Bale said.

The government is set to open some schools next week and shops in mid-June, but people will need to observe social distancing for months to come.

“Anything that appears to undermine those rules, that suggests they only apply to some people rather than all of us, it becomes quite dangerous,” Bale said. “If there’s one thing that unites Brits, it’s that they place a premium on fairness and they loathe hypocrisy.”

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