Boris Johnson will be questioned by senior MPs as he faces a growing Tory revolt and plummeting poll ratings over the Dominic Cummings row.
The prime minister’s senior adviser drove from London to Durham to isolate with his family during the lockdown and says he subsequently took a trip to Barnard Castle to see if he was fit enough to drive before returning to the capital.
Johnson, who will be questioned by the Liaison Committee on Wednesday, has stood by his embattled aide.
But one minister has quit in protest and dozens of Tory MPs have publicly called for Cummings to leave his post.
A YouGov survey for the Times showed the Conservative lead over Labour had been cut by nine points during the Cummings saga – the biggest drop since 2010 – as support for the government fell four points to 44% with Labour rising five points to 38%.
In an indication of the difficulties Cummings’ actions are causing at the top of government, ministers were forced to deny that a review was being launched into fines issued to other people travelling with their families.
Health secretary Matt Hancock used Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference to indicate he would consult the Treasury and “look at it”.
But on Wednesday morning, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said “there isn’t going to be a formal review” and the issuing of fines was a matter for the police.
He defended Cummings’ actions and said people could “exercise a degree of personal judgment” in following lockdown laws.
“If there are no other options, if you don’t have ready access to childcare, then you can do as Dominic Cummings chose to do,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The guidelines say that you must do your best, but they appreciate that family life poses particular challenges and in order to protect children you are able to exercise a degree of personal judgment.”
Tory MPs and scientists advising ministers have warned that Cummings’ actions risk undermining respect for the restrictions which have helped curb the spread of a virus which has been linked to at least 47,300 deaths in the UK.
County Durham’s three Conservative MPs issued a joint statement saying Cummings had created a “major distraction”, but stopped short of calling for him to go.
“Overall, we believe his actions to be motivated out of his desire as a parent to do what he thought was necessary in protecting his family,” said the statement from Richard Holden, who represents North West Durham, Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, whose constituency includes Barnard Castle, and Paul Howell, who represents Sedgefield.
“However, in the same circumstances, none of us would have made the decisions he made – particularly over the visit to Barnard Castle.”
Johnson will face around 20 minutes of questioning on the Cummings row during his appearance before the Liaison Committee, a panel made up of select committee chairs.
Health and Social Care Committee chair Jeremy Hunt – one of the MPs on the panel – has already said he believes Cummings broke the rules, although he stopped short of calling for him to be sacked.
Women and Equalities Committee chair Caroline Nokes, who will also be on the panel, has said “there cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others”.
In other developments:
– The prime minister’s sister Rachel Johnson told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that if she were in Cummings’ position she would apologise and admit she “messed up”
– Hancock confirmed there could be “local lockdowns” if the test and trace system identifies coronavirus hotspots
– Robin Lees, a witness to the alleged lockdown breach by Cummings, said he has been interviewed by police
– Johnson said an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak needs to take place
Ahead of the prime minister’s appearance, Liaison Committee chair Bernard Jenkin told the PA news agency: “I have got no intention of preventing any subject any member of the committee wants to raise.”
The comment follows controversy over Jenkin’s election to the committee chair, with some MPs saying he is too close to the prime minister.
Jenkin insisted the format for the session has been agreed by the committee.
Cummings said he drove to Durham to isolate in a property on his father’s farm because of concerns over care for his four-year-old son if both he and his wife were incapacitated by Covid-19.
But at least 30 Conservative MPs have voiced their frustration over Cummings after he expressed “no regrets” about his trip.
On Tuesday, Douglas Ross quit as a junior Scotland Office minister, saying he could not “in good faith” defend Cummings’ actions.
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