Outcry Over Cummings Turns Public Against Johnson for 1st Time

0
42

LONDON — For more than two months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has floundered in his response to the coronavirus — abandoning widespread testing, dragging his feet on imposing a lockdown, leaving nursing homes unprotected, and muddling his message about how to reopen the British economy.

But it took a rogue 260-mile car trip by Mr. Johnson’s closest adviser to turn the tide of public opinion against him.

The outcry over Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, showed no signs of abating on Tuesday, as a junior minister in Mr. Johnson’s government resigned in protest and several additional lawmakers from his Conservative Party called on the prime minister to dismiss Mr. Cummings, taking the total number of those who have gone public against him to more than 35.

Two new polls showed a sharp erosion of public support for Mr. Johnson and a wall of opposition for his aide.

The image of a powerful government official flouting the lockdown rules that Downing Street enforces on everyone else has struck a nerve in a way that Britain’s haphazard response to the virus has not. Unlike the mysteries of epidemiology or the technical details of testing, Mr. Cummings’s decision to decamp for his parents’ house in Durham, in the north of England, when others were confined in their homes, is easy to understand.

“I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didn’t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government,” observed Douglas Ross, the under secretary of state for Scotland, in his resignation statement.

“I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right,” he said.

ImageDouglas Ross, under secretary of state for Scotland, who resigned on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November.
Credit…Pool photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas

Mr. Johnson showed no signs of abandoning Mr. Cummings, offering such an unequivocal defense, analysts said, that it likely forecloses the possibility of opening an inquiry into his conduct — one way the prime minister could have appeased critics.

He risked his political capital to send his aide out to the garden at 10 Downing Street on Monday to mount an unrepentant defense of his actions. Mr. Cummings said that with his wife showing symptoms of the virus and him fearing he would soon contract it, he wanted to line up care for his 4-year-old child with relatives in Durham.

On Tuesday, the British media remorselessly dissected Mr. Cummings’s account. They zeroed in on his claim that after he arrived in Durham and was bedridden for several days there, he drove to a scenic town more than 20 miles away to test his eyesight, which he said had been impaired by his illness, before embarking on the long journey back to London. The visit coincided with the birthday of Mr. Cummings’s wife.

Kay Burley, an anchor at Sky News, pressed an ally of Mr. Cummings’s, Michael Gove, on whether people with damaged eyesight should “get in a car and drive half an hour with your 4-year-old strapped in the back.” Mr. Gove, a senior Cabinet minister, allowed that Mr. Cummings could have skipped the excursion to the town, Barnard Castle, and driven straight to London.

That ordinary Britons were consumed by the picayune details of an unelected political strategist’s personal travels, on a day when new government statistics suggested that the death toll from the coronavirus was closing in on 50,000, showed why the Cummings affair poses such a threat to Mr. Johnson. It goes beyond the normal din of politics to become a topic for dinner table conversation.

Image

Credit…Pool photo by Jonathan Brady

In British parlance, it is a story with “cut through.”

“Sixty-five million of us have been locked up for weeks,” said Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, “and this guy has the cheek to break the rules he created and then tell us he acted reasonably. That has a completely electric effect.”

Mr. Cummings’s effort to explain himself rallied his supporters, who include most prominent cabinet ministers, but failed to turn the tide either among other lawmakers or, apparently, the general public.

A poll by the market research firm, YouGov, taken after Monday’s news conference, found that 71 percent of respondents believed Mr. Cummings violated government rules in traveling to Durham, and 59 percent believed he should resign.

Mr. Johnson’s numbers have taken a hit as well. Another survey, by the polling firm Savanta ComRes, found that his approval rating plunged 20 percentage points in the last four days and now stands in negative territory for the first time since his landslide election victory in December.

For all of Mr. Johnson’s struggles in handling the coronavirus, the British public had been patient with him. His ratings surged after he imposed the lockdown on March 23 and peaked when he was admitted to an intensive care unit with the virus on April 8. After he was released from the hospital, and the spotlight shifted to Britain’s mounting death toll, his support began to weaken.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 26, 2020

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


Unlike in the United States, however, where President Trump’s feuds with governors and his touting of dubious remedies have been polarizing, Britons have generally pulled together, showing their solidarity every Thursday night with a round of applause for the National Health Service. This week, critics are calling for people to boo Mr. Johnson before they cheer the health workers.

Image

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Criticism of Mr. Cummings has come from the across the political spectrum and includes both the Conservative Party establishment and die-hard supporters of Brexit. “No Apology, No Regrets,” said the headline of the staunchly pro-Conservative Daily Mail, which ran 12 pages of coverage, most of it scathing.

Robert Hayward, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and a polling expert, said the episode angered traditional law-and-order Conservatives who do not take kindly to rule breaking. But it has had the same effect on some who voted for the Conservatives for the first time in December in northern, working-class constituencies — the so-called “red wall” seats historically held by the Labour Party.

“Boris Johnson successfully convinced a fair few people in the Midlands and the north that he was a different sort of Tory and my guess is that this group of people will be most offended by it,” Mr. Hayward said.

Some analysts suggested that the saga could do the same damage to the Conservatives as two other calamities in the party’s modern history.

One was the introduction of the poll tax in the 1980s, which crippled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and paved the way for her downfall in 1990. The other was when Britain crashed out of a European currency mechanism in 1992, which haunted Prime Minister John Major until he was swept out of power in 1997.

“This has that sort of potential, though whether it gets that far we can’t yet judge,” Mr. Hayward said. Certainly, he said, it was likely “to be damaging for months and possibly for longer.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here