Boris Johnson has backed his chief adviser. Dominic Cummings will remain in post, despite being spotted at his parents’ residence in Durham on Sunday 5 April, in contravention of the government’s guidance during lockdown.
Cummings has conceded that he was in Durham that weekend. But he has cited exceptional circumstances and Johnson has accepted this defence.
“In travelling to find the right kind of childcare, when he [Cummings] had no alternative,” the Prime Minister said at this afternoon’s Downing Street press conference, “I think he followed the instincts of every father and of every parent.”
This is the basis on which Johnson and his government are defending Cummings’ trip. It is the same basis on which cabinet ministers defended it yesterday.
Twice this weekend, yesterday and today, I interviewed Cummings’ parents. We had spoken in the past, for a profile I wrote of Cummings.
After talking with them this time, I was left unsure as to why Cummings went to Durham. But his mother referred to one aspect of the situation which has not been reported, and may partly explain Cummings’ presence at their home on 5 April.
The day that Cummings was spotted in Durham has unappreciated relevance. It was the day that Cummings’ maternal uncle, Lord Justice Laws, with whom he was close, died in London.
Laws – one of the great jurists of his generation, who stepped down from the Court of Appeal in 2016 – died of, or with, Covid-19, having already been unwell in hospital.
Having met Lord Justice Laws in September, I was aware of his death. Yesterday, when I called Cummings’ mother, Morag, she pointed to this when I asked her if Cummings’ presence in Durham had been misunderstood.
“What I would like to get across,” she told me yesterday afternoon, “is exactly what you started with” – I had mentioned her brother’s death – “[that] my brother, Dominic’s uncle, died on Palm Sunday.” This was 5 April, the day Cummings was spotted at the family home.
“You know, we have been a grieving family,” she continued, “and there’s been no recognition of that, and I wish reporters would be cognisant of that fact.”
“Palm Sunday,” she continued, “was the day that John [Lord Justice Laws] died, the same day as the Prime Minister was taken into hospital, the same day that the Queen gave her magnificent address to the nation. That was Palm Sunday.”
I asked her whether Cummings had, therefore, gone up to Durham partly as a consequence of Laws being in hospital. She declined to say, but added, “I have no other comment to make other than to say that my brother died on Palm Sunday, and the press has not been cognisant of that fact, either from Dominic’s point of view or from mine.”
The death of Cummings’ uncle was a great loss, both to the law and to the Cummings family. Cummings and his uncle were close. As Laws’ daughter, Margaret Grace, who lives in London, told me yesterday, “the relationship my dad had with Dominic was very, very strong”.
“It really has affected my family,” she said, speaking of the wider family, including Cummings, “because we are a small family.”
“It’s just a very tight unit,” she added.
One aspect of the lockdown rules that Cummings unquestionably did observe was not visiting his uncle in hospital, something he would have otherwise done, Laws’ daughter told me. Cummings had visited his uncle in the past when Laws had been in and out of hospital, but “obviously not on this occasion at all”, she said.
Left unable to visit Laws, and with his mother unable to travel to London to visit her brother, did Cummings go up to Durham in the days leading up to Palm Sunday partly or principally because Laws was ill in hospital?
Johnson, in answer to questions from the press this afternoon, noted the absence for Cummings of “relatives who live nearby” in London and who could have helped with “the right kind” of childcare. No one outside the family can say what childcare was required. But Cummings does have family in the capital, such as Laws’ daughter, his cousin.
If childcare was not the sole reason for Cummings’s visit, gathering as a family ahead of grief would be an understandable act. It would not, however, under the law and the government’s guidance at the time, have been justified.
In the absence of a more detailed explanation, there are few facts. When I called Morag Cummings back this afternoon in an attempt to clarify the situation, she expressed her and Cummings’ father’s deep frustration with the press’s reporting this weekend.
“I’m sorry Harry,” she said, “but I’m not going to add anything else, people can draw what conclusions [they like]. I’m so disgusted with the way journalists [have acted], that I’m not going to make any more comments to anybody about anything, because all it does is make things worse.”
Robert Cummings – with whom I spoke amicably in September – then told me, “You guys [the press], flourish on trying to make people fail. That’s what you want. You let them do good things and then you try to undermine them. Your economic model depends on failure.”
“I just want you to understand how annoyed with you people we are,” he continued, grouping together all journalists. “You’re not suffering from people being on your doorstep, poking cameras in your face, and more than that, a four-year-old boy is having to walk through a scrum to be with his mum and dad. If you think that’s the way to behave, shame on you.”
Neither of Cummings’ parents wished to comment on the situation any further, or address reports that Cummings was also spotted outside of London in Durham on 12 and 19 April.
Johnson has dismissed reports of those additional visits as inaccurate. But the basis on which he has backed Cummings – the lack of childcare in London – was not mentioned when I spoke to Cummings’ parents.