Boris stands by bumbling aide in lockdown fiasco
Boris Johnson has gambled that the public will forgive his top adviser Dominic Cummings for breaching lockdown rules in one of his major tests as Prime Minister.
In an extraordinary step, Mr Johnson has backed the "integrity" of Mr Cummings, a divisive figure in the UK Conservative Party but considered to be an election-winning guru.
Mr Johnson faced questions about whether Mr Cummings, who drove 420km to his parents' house in Durham, in England's north, would weaken the public's resolve to lockdown rules.
And a former police chief has claimed that Mr Cummings "broke the law" by driving during lockdown.
Mr Johnson fronted a delayed press conference on Monday morning Australian time, addressing the elephant in the room at its opening.
He said the "big question" that was being asked was "is this Government asking you - the people, the public - to do one thing, while senior people here in Government do something else?"
"Have we been asking you to make sacrifices, to obey social distancing - stay at home - while some people have been basically flouting those rules and endangering lives."
Mr Johnson said he had spoken directly to Mr Cummings about his situation and his actions when he travelled to Durham to seek help with caring for his four-year-old son as his wife was also sick with coronavirus.
He said that he backed Mr Cummings who was "following the instincts of any father" by seeking to get help with childcare.
Nine backbenchers had called for Mr Cummings to be sacked after claims that he had also driven to the village of Barnard's Castle, where he was spotted by a retired teacher who took down a number plate.
The teacher said that he had seen a "scruffy" man, with a woman and a child on April 12.
The number plate he noted matched a car that Mr Cummings has used.
Leading scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, a key government scientific adviser, was forced to step down after he was caught visiting his mistress during lockdown.
Mr Johnson rejected other allegations against Mr Cummings, backing the maverick adviser who proudly won the World's Worst Dressed man award and was a fierce critic of the media.
"Though there have been many other allegations about what happened when he was in self-isolation and thereafter, some of them palpably false, I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives," Mr Johnson said.
Police visited Mr Cummings' London home on Sunday local time, but no-one was at home.
The story has dominated front pages for the past two days in the UK, with it likely to dominate the agenda during the week.
Mr Cummings has been an abrasive figure inside 10 Downing Street, with some MPs potentially using the crisis to get rid of a thorn in their side.
Former Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton said he was frustrated that his former colleagues had been drawn into the controversy.
Mr Barton said that it was clear Mr Cummings had broken lockdown rules.
"And that's why I was really quite surprised to learn that somebody who has made the rules that are very clear that if you're suffering from coronavirus, you have to stay at home, you're in lockdown, you do not leave your home under any circumstances," he told the BBC.
"Let's not beat about the bush, he broke the rules, it's very clear. Now what they're trying to do is use this sophisticated sophistry to suggest that if you've got a child then the rules don't quite apply - that's rubbish."
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had failed a test.
"It is an insult to sacrifices made by the British people that Boris Johnson has chosen to take no action against Dominic Cummings," he said.
"Millions were watching for answers and they got nothing. That's why the Cabinet Secretary must now launch an urgent inquiry."
Originally published as Boris stands by bumbling aide in lockdown fiasco