Boris Johnson steps up war of words with Dominic Cummings as Therese Coffey raises infamous Barnard Castle lockdown trip

A cabinet minister retaliated in the war against Dominic Cummings today by repeatedly reminding the public of his notorious trip to Durham and Barnard Castle in the first lockdown.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey highlighted the journey which the then Downing Street senior adviser defended in an extraordinary press conference in the No10 rose garden.

In what looked like a co-ordinated No10 move this morning to discredit Mr Cummings, Ms Coffey made reference to the County Durham trip while speaking to at least three news outlets.

Asked about Mr Cummings on Sky News, she said: “A lot of people will have seen Dominic Cummings for the first time ever last year when he gave a press conference in the Rose Garden in No10. They will have come to their own views, I’m sure, the public.”

She made similar comments on Times Radio and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Mr Cummings was widely condemned for driving his family from London to Durham at the end of March last year to stay at his parents’ estate after his wife fell ill with suspected coronavirus. Millions of people were staying at home at the time under Covid-19 restrictions.

But Boris Johnson stood by his then top aide who also argued that he made a 25-mile trip to Barnard Castle while in County Durham to test his eyesight before driving back to London. Now, the two are at daggers drawn, with the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party fighting a growing “sleaze” storm fuelled by an incendiary blog by Mr Cummings last week.

After being accused of leaks against Mr Johnson, he hit back with damning claims about the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat, on the “chatty rat” inquiry into the leaking of plans for a second lockdown, and the Prime Minister’s conduct.

Ms Coffey, though, this morning sought to shift the focus away from the “sleaze” row and back onto the battle against Covid-19 and the roadmap to recovery.

Mr Johnson was expected to tell the Cabinet today that the Government must “stay totally focused on the public’s priorities, on fighting Covid, delivering vaccines and creating jobs as we proceed on the path back to normality”. This is despite him reportedly briefing newspaper editors blaming Mr Cummings for leaks. In other developments:

Vaccines were today offered to people aged 43 and 42. Matt Hancock said he was “very excited” because the age group now eligible “includes me!” He appealed to the public: “When you get your text, please come forward and get your jab.”

The Health Secretary handed over his phone to security experts while watching his children play sport, writer Anne McElvoy reveals in tonight’s Standard. The surprising incident happened during the probe into the “lockdown leak” — and the minister happily complied in order to clear his name.

A former member of the Electoral Commission, Professor David Howarth, said Mr Johnson should have declared a reported £58,000 donation or loan for the refurbishment of his flat even if it was repaid later. “The purpose of this is we need to know who is paying for politicians,” he told BBC’s Radio 4.

Former Cabinet Secretary Lord [Gus] O’Donnell said: “Prime Ministers have to set an example, and therefore they should abide by the rules. I think that’s really important and it’s in the Prime Minister’s own interest to do this.” He agreed there was a case for funding the Downing Street flat through a trust.

Dr Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute of Government, said there was no law against refurbishments being paid for by the Tory Party but it could cause “problem of perception” and create a sense that the Prime Minister was under “a financial obligation” to the party Treasurer, for example.

Mr Johnson faced a fresh allegation that he told aides in Downing Street he would rather let Covid-19 “rip” than order a second lockdown because of its economic harm. No10 described the claims in The Times as “gross distortions” of his position.

The war between Mr Cummings and the Prime Minister exploded last week when No10 accused the former adviser of being behind leaks including WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and business tycoon Sir James Dyson. Mr Cummings hit back with the blog in which he alleged the Prime Minister had at least at one stage been considering a plan to get donors to pay for the revamp of his Downing Street flat which Mr Cummings says he warned him would be “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal”. Downing Street has rejected the claims by Mr Cummings who was forced out of No10 after losing a power struggle last autumn.

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