Tory whips apologise for urging MPs to support Dominic Cummings

Rajeev Syal and Dan Sabbagh
Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Conservative party whips were forced to offer apologies to at least two ministers who were persuaded to tweet their support of Dominic Cummings on Saturday, an insider has told the Guardian, as Tory frustration grew over attempts to save the career of the prime minister’s closest aide.

Tory MPs and local associations have been bombarded with messages from angry constituents, members and police officers. Some emails of complaint contained upsetting details about relatives with terminal diseases left unseen in their dying days, and ill grandchildren who could not be embraced.

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One MP received more than 80 complaints in three hours, while another received more than 120 over 12 hours following the disclosure that Cummings had travelled from London to Durham as his wife – and later he – came down with coronavirus symptoms.

“People feel as if they have been taken for fools. Everyone has made a sacrifice, everyone has family members they have been unable to see. One complaint came from someone who had missed their 94-year-old terminal relative’s last birthday. We look elitist, a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ party,” one MP said.

Another said they had received a complaint from a police officer. “I’m being asked legitimate questions about how officers are supposed to respond if members of the public turn round this weekend and say if the rules don’t apply to Boris’s aide, they do not apply to them either.”

The story broke on Friday, when the Guardian and Daily Mirror disclosed that Cummings had driven 264 miles from London with his ailing wife and young son to a family home in County Durham in late March, where he was spotted by a passer-by on 5 April.

Related: Dominic Cummings, coronavirus and lockdown – a timeline

The revelation prompted several senior members of government to tweet their support for Cummings, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab and Cummings’s close ally, Michael Gove.

Inside Downing Street, they believed they could see off damage from the story by focusing on Cummings’s wish to protect his son in case both he and his wife were struck down by the disease. A source said: “They were saying, ‘The kid is the trump card.’”

On Saturday night, the Guardian/Observer and the Sunday Mirror then alleged that Cummings was spotted in the market town of Barnard Castle, 30 miles away, on 12 April. After Cummings returned to London by 14 April, another witness said he was spotted in County Durham again on 19 April. This has been denied by the government.

One Conservative backbencher said Saturday’s revelations prompted the whips to begin ringing around MPs to test the mood. “It looked as if there had been a cock-up and our ministers had been made to look like chumps.

“I told the whips that I was not happy, my association is not happy. And if anything else comes out, then I’ll call for Cummings to go,” the MP said.

The chair of the women and equality select committee, Caroline Nokes, said she told the whips on Saturday that Cummings should be removed from his post. “There cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others. My inbox is rammed with very angry constituents and I do not blame them,” she tweeted.

Related: One law for Dominic Cummings, another for the rest of us | Letters

Although Downing Street said some of the allegations were “false” and “inaccurate”, on Sunday, nine Tory MPs, including three select committee chairs, broke cover and publicly called on Johnson to remove his most influential aide.

The former Brexit minister Steve Baker said on Sunday that the architect of the Vote Leave campaign should stand aside. “Today’s newspapers are a disaster,” he said. “Enormous political capital is being expended saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and who clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home, without childcare from their parents, and instead risked spreading the virus by travelling.

“It is intolerable that Boris, Boris’s government and Boris’s programme should be harmed in this way,” Baker wrote in the Critic magazine.

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee and a former minister, withdrew his public support for Cummings and instead said the adviser should “face serious consequences” if he had broken the rules.

In a supportive tweet on Saturday, he had written: “Ill couple drive 260 miles to ensure their small child can be looked after. In some quarters this is regarded as the crime of the century.”

But speaking to yourharlow.com on Sunday, he said: “I regret writing the tweet yesterday in the way I did about the No 10 political adviser and his movements. I am really sorry for it. I do not support, or condone anyone who has broken the law or regulations.”

Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, tweeted: “While as a father and as a grandfather I fully appreciate Mr Cummings’ desire to protect his child, there cannot be one law for the prime minister’s staff and another for everyone else. He has sent out completely the wrong message and his position is no longer tenable.”

Other Conservative MPs calling for Cummings to go included Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone & Hythe, Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough and Rushden, Craig Whittaker, MP for Calder Valley, and Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer.