Leaks, refurbs and lockdown outbursts: What the Downing Street row is all about

PA Political Staff
·4-min read

A behind-the-scenes feud between Boris Johnson and his former aide Dominic Cummings has exploded publicly in recent days.

Here we look at what has been going on:

– What sparked the Downing Street briefing war?

Late on Thursday night, three newspapers carried the explosive claim, attributed to No 10 sources – although some reports have suggested it was Boris Johnson himself who picked up the phone to editors – that Dominic Cummings was behind a series of leaks targeting the Prime Minister.

Review of the Year 2020
Dominic Cummings left No 10 last year but still has the capacity to wound the Prime Minister (Yui Mok/PA)

The decision to launch an assault on Mr Cummings, who left No 10 last year following a power struggle involving Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds, was ultimately prompted by the leak of text messages showing the Prime Minister offering to fix a tax issue raised by entrepreneur Sir James Dyson in order to help create new ventilators for the NHS as the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Mr Cummings was also fingered as the likely culprit in the leaking of messages between Mr Johnson and the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and suspicions have also been raised by a series of disclosures about the funding for renovations of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat.

– What was Dominic Cummings’s response?

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Mr Cummings appears to be offering something straight out of the freezer.

In a blog post responding to the accusations, he denied leaking the Dyson texts but went on to make a series of incendiary claims about Mr Johnson’s conduct.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds
Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds (Adam Davy/PA)

He accused the Prime Minister of seeking to block the investigation into the leak of plans for England’s second coronavirus lockdown after learning that a close friend of Ms Symonds had been implicated – something the Prime Minister denied.

Mr Cummings also claimed he told Mr Johnson that “plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation” of the Downing Street flat “were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.

The Government has revealed that Mr Johnson has paid the bill for the renovations himself, although Labour has demanded a full inquiry.

However, reports have suggested that the Conservative Party made an initial payment to the Cabinet Office to cover the renovations, with Mr Johnson then paying back the party.

No 10 has stopped short of denying that the party gave Mr Johnson a loan, with a spokeswoman instead saying “Conservative Party funds are not being used for this”. The deployment of the present tense does not rule out any temporary past use of Tory money.

– Anything else?

The leaks have continued, with ministers strongly denying claims that Mr Johnson said “no more f****** lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands” after ordering the second shutdown in October.

No named sources have been given for the claim, but Mr Cummings is known to have advocated a tougher line on lockdown measures than the Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson denied making the comment and stressed that lockdowns had been successful in driving down cases.

Downing Street is braced for further hostile fire from Mr Cummings when he appears before a Commons select committee on May 26.

– Does any of this really matter?

Mr Cummings – someone who was at Mr Johnson’s side during the Vote Leave campaign and in No 10 – now believes the Prime Minister has fallen “below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Whether this can be simply shrugged off as a bitter ex-employee hitting out at his former boss remains to be seen, certainly that appears to be No 10’s strategy so far.

But the row, which follows hard on the heels of questions about David Cameron’s lobbying of former colleagues, has been seized on by Labour in the run-up to the May 6 elections as a sign the Government is slipping into a “mire of sleaze”.

Support for the Tories fell five points in a month, according to an Ipsos Mori poll carried out in the days before the Cummings allegations, although at 40% the Conservatives still held a three-point lead over Labour.

There are also legal pitfalls, and potential breaches of the ministerial code or Electoral Commission rules.

Mr Johnson has said “if there’s… any declaration to be made” then it will be “made in due course”, while his official spokesman insisted the Prime Minister “has acted in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct and electoral law”.