Time and again during his extraordinary press conference in the garden behind 10 Downing Street, Dominic Cummings blamed inaccurate reporting in the media for the controversy over his journey to Durham during the lockdown. But he confirmed a number of important details No 10 had been dismissing as inaccurate, some of which were apparently in breach of the official guidelines.
The first apparent breach was when he went back into Downing Street for a few hours after his wife fell ill at their London home with suspected coronavirus when he should have self-isolated immediately. He confirmed that the couple drove about 27km with their four year-old son from Durham to Barnard Castle and spent about 15 minutes in the town, stopping in a forest on the way back.
Cummings claims that they undertook the hour-long round trip to test his eyesight before driving back to London because he feared it had been damaged by coronavirus. But the guidelines he helped to draft told the public that they could only leave their homes to run, cycle or walk for exercise or to get essential supplies.
Cummings expressed no regret over his actions, did not accept any responsibility for undermining the government’s public health message and said he had never considered resigning his position. He said his future was for the prime minister to determine, making clear he will have to sack him if he wants him to go.
Although Johnson said at his own press conference later that nobody had an unconditional guarantee of continued employment in Downing Street, he left no doubt about his determination to keep Cummings in place. He struck a more conciliatory tone, saying “of course I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel” but repeated that his adviser had done nothing wrong.
Under questioning from Channel Four News’s Gary Gibbon, Cummings confirmed that he told Johnson about his journey to Durham a few days after he made it. But both men claimed that they were so ill at the time that neither could remember the conversation clearly.
Cabinet ministers emerged from beneath the stones they have been hiding under since an early bout of supportive tweeting on Saturday morning to reprise their messages of solidarity and urge everyone to move on. None of the 20 Conservative MPs who had called for Cummings to go before the press conference immediately changed their tune afterwards.
Cummings decided to make his statement after Conservative backbenchers found their inboxes filled with angry messages from constituents and the Daily Mail called for his resignation on its front page. His account of his actions was unconvincing to most of his critics but it may have been enough, along with Johnson’s announcement of a further easing of the lockdown, to take some of the heat out of the controversy.
If that happens, Cummings will not only remain in Downing Street but will find his position strengthened as the indispensable element at the heart of Johnson’s government.