LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw his public support suffer the sharpest fall for a Conservative leader in a decade Wednesday as he prepared to be grilled by lawmakers over his handling of the Dominic Cummings scandal.
Johnson has stuck by Cummings despite a public and political backlash over his top aide’s travels to visit family despite the government’s strict rules to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Cummings affair seems to have really cut through to the public and is taking a rapid toll on support for the government in general and the prime minister in particular,” Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, told AFP.
“The danger is that it triggers and reinforces a long-held concern among British voters that the Conservative Party cares more about its rich friends than about ordinary folk.”
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A YouGov poll for The Times newspaper showed the Conservative lead over the main opposition Labour party shrink by nine points in a week.
The survey put the Tories on 44 percent — down four points — and Labour on 38 percent, up five points over the past seven days.
The last Tory leader to see his lead fall by the same amount was David Cameron during the 2010 general election campaign.
A poll in the Daily Mail newspaper showed Johnson’s approval rating had plummeted from 19 percent to minus one percent in just a few days — despite leading his party to a comprehensive general election victory just six months ago.
Cummings, one of the architects of the 2016 Brexit campaign, drove his wife and young son on a 264-mile (425-kilometer) trip from London to Durham, northeast England, during the strictest phase of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown.
His wife had by then developed COVID-19 symptoms, and Cummings himself came down with the virus a few days later.
Cummings has also admitted taking a 60-mile round trip to a local beauty spot — as he explained, to test his eyesight — before driving back to London.
Although some have suggested the support and criticism of Cummings is split along pro- and anti-Brexit lines, Bale says public disquiet goes further.
“An awful lot of Leavers think the whole thing stinks — something that should worry the government, big-time.”
The polls add to a sense of growing revolt over the government’s handling of Cummings, with nearly 40 Tory MPs demanding he lose his job, while one junior minister has quit in protest.
Among those to add his criticism of Cummings overnight was former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who came second to Johnson in last year’s Conservative leadership contest.
Hunt, in a letter to a constituent, said that Cummings had broken the government’s own rules and that there were “clearly mistakes,” the Guardian reported.
However, cabinet minister Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary, backed Johnson’s top advisor on Wednesday.
“I think, is the time for us all to move on,” he told the BBC, adding that Cummings had not broken any government guidelines.
He added that anyone could drive across the country to seek childcare in the same way that Cummings did, but said there would be no review of fines imposed on those who have done that before now, contradicting suggestions on Tuesday from Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Britain is one of the worst-hit countries by the pandemic, with more than 46,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 by mid-May, according to official statistics released Tuesday.
Johnson’s government, whose tally only includes deaths confirmed by a positive test, has counted 37,048 fatalities.