Coronavirus: Johnson to face senior MPs over Cummings and his handling of the pandemic

May 26, 2020

Boris Johnson is facing more potentially awkward questions about his refusal to sack Dominic Cummings in a 90-minute interrogation by senior MPs.

For the first time since becoming Prime Minister 10 months ago, he is appearing before the Liaison Committee, made up of the MPs who chair all-party select committees.

Mr Johnson's interrogation comes as more than 30 Tory MPs demand Mr Cummings is sacked and opinion polls suggest strong public support for his dismissal.

The whole committee session, likely to be conducted by video link, will be about the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, beginning with a section allowing questions about Mr Cummings.

But Opposition MPs are furious that only 20 minutes is earmarked for this section, entitled "Who is in charge of what?" and including Mr Cummings' "roles and responsibilities".

The government's critics claim the limited time available for questions on Mr Cummings is the result of a stitch-up between Downing Street and the committee chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin.

Sir Bernard, a prominent Brexiteer and supporter of the PM, was imposed on the committee by the government last week, even though he was not already a member, as was the previous custom.

There is also criticism of Sir Bernard for barring two leading Tory critics of Mr Johnson on the committee, Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, from asking questions at the hearing.

Ahead of the meeting, Sarah Wollaston, who chaired the committee in the last parliament, told Sky News: "This is a very important forum.

"It's not like Prime Minister's Questions with a one-off question that can be batted off. This is questioning from expert select committee chairs and it's all about the detail."

In the "Who is in charge?" section, the MPs due to question Mr Johnson are Sir Bernard, Labour's Yvette Cooper, the SNP's Pete Wishart and two Tories, Stephen Crabb and Simon Hoare.

The Scottish National Party's Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, told Sky News: "The first question is why hasn't he sacked Mr Cummings, the man whose broken the lockdown rules in so many ways.

"Quite simply I think the Prime Minister's judgement has been brought into question. So the question to the PM is 'Why haven't you done the right thing? Why haven't you sacked Dominic Cummings?'"

The second section is 25 minutes of questions on "science, testing, tracking and tracing", including the role of Sage, the Government's scientific advisory panel, and Government policy on wearing face masks.

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who stood against Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership, will lead these questions, followed by another former Tory Cabinet minister, Greg Clark, and Labour's Clive Betts and Meg Hillier.

Breaking his silence on the Cummings controversy, Mr Hunt has written in an email to constituents - passed to Sky News - that he believed Mr Cummings did break lockdown rules. But he is not demanding his resignation.

"Having watched the broadcast, my own view is that what he did was a clear breach of the lockdown rules - coming back into work when he had been with his wife who was ill, driving to Durham instead of staying at home and visiting Barnard Castle," Mr Hunt wrote.

"These were clearly mistakes - both in terms of the guidance which was crystal clear, and in terms of the signal it would potentially give out to others as someone who was at the centre of government.

"But as someone who has been at the centre of media storms with a young family I know you do make mistakes in these situations. I have made them myself. So I am afraid I am not going to add my voice to the list of those calling for him to resign.

"I am also not convinced that politics gains much from the spectacle of scalp-hunting even though I recognise that accountability is central to our democracy and sometimes people do need to resign."

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The third section of the committee hearing is 20 minutes on re-opening schools, including the inequality effects of the COVID-19 crisis, with questions from Tory ex-ministers Robert Halfon and Caroline Nokes and Labour's Stephen Timms.

And finally there will be 20 minutes on reopening the economy, business and recovery, led by former Tory Treasury minister Mel Stride, followed by Labour's Darren Jones and Mr Timms and Tory Hew Merriman.

As calls for Mr Cummings's dismissal grew among Tory MPs, one veteran backbencher called on the leaders of the 1922 Committee to tell the PM that his controversial adviser must be sacked.

Sir Roger Gale, a former Conservative Party vice-chairman and an MP since 1983, told Sky News: "I want the 1922 Committee to put pressure on the PM.

"They need to say that this has gone too far and there is huge public backlash in what has happened and the way it has been handled.

"The time I think, has come for Mr Cummings to resign, or for the PM to dispense of his services."

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