'Cummings is the real boss': world's press pours scorn on Boris Johnson

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

Yes, Libération declared categorically, “the answer is yes. There really is one rule for Dominic Cummings, prime minister Boris Johnson’s special adviser, and another, quite different rule for the rest of the British public.”

Yes indeed, France’s left-leaning daily repeated, “Cummings may disregard, without consequence, the lockdown imposed on the rest of the country. And yes, the real boss at No 10 is this unelected adviser, and not its current tenant, Boris Johnson.”

News of Cummings’ 500-mile round trip to Durham, and of Johnson’s decision to back his controversial adviser, left much of the international media doubting the prime minister’s judgment, condemning his “shameless” response – and wondering who is really in charge in Downing St.

In telling the public that “the efforts and sacrifices demanded of them - staying home, not visiting even dying relatives” simply did not apply to his closest adviser, Johnson had “confirmed the exceptional influence” Cummings exerts on him, Libération said.

Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

Italy’s Corriere della Sera agreed, saying there was “one politically untouchable man in London, and it is not the prime minister”. Johnson has “enveloped himself in unsustainable contradictions just to shield his adviser”, the paper said, but “clearly he doesn’t have the power to get rid of Cummings”.

The prime minister’s personal appearance at Sunday’s briefing was preceded by a face-to-face meeting at which “it is evident that Cummings must have confronted Johnson with the reality that without him, the government is going nowhere – though now, with him, everyone is at risk of crashing to the ground.”

In the Netherlands, De Volkskrant recalled that Cummings was “the architect of Brexit and of Johnson’s election victory, so Johnson does not want to ditch him just like that”. But others who broke the lockdown rules were given no option but to resign, the paper pointed out.

“By insisting that Cummings had behaved ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’, the prime minister has effectively raised the question of who exactly is the boss inside No 10 Downing St: the prime minister, or his top adviser.”

The Irish Times noted that Johnson “not only exonerated Cummings, but praised him … In its shamelessness, it was a return to the playbook of his early months in office, when he gloried in the disapproval of his political enemies over his prorogation of parliament and (false) claim he would not fulfil his legal obligation to seek a delay to Brexit.”

In Spain, El País said the episode showed Johnson was increasingly “losing his ability to scent what the people will and won’t put up with”. Cummings, the former Brexit guru, “seems to have become the voice that whispers advice on how to act in the face of the devastating virus crisis”, the paper said.

“And for the time being, at least, Johnson is not prepared to keep him two metres away - nor to maintain the safe political distance from his adviser that many of his Conservative fellow believers are now demanding.”

Le Monde confirmed the prime minister’s “preferential treatment” of Cummings was “very risky: with what credibility will his government emerge from this episode as it approaching a crucial new phase of the country’s exit from lockdown?” Continuing to defend his adviser “exposes Johnson to considerable political damage”, it said.

In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said whether Johnson should fire his chief advisor had “superseded over all other coronavirus questions, bringing politics back to centre stage”. Cummings is “more than a consultant”, the paper said. “He is a symbolic figure whose loss would hit the prime minister and his agenda hard.”

In a dispatch published by several German papers including the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the dpa news agency said the government’s credibility “could have been seriously damaged by the generous interpretation of the lockdown rules in Cummings’ favour”.

Denmark’s Politiken said Johnson had “so far dodged all questions about specific critical issues”, such as whether Cummings had indeed visited Barnard Castle while in self-isolation in Durham. “The question remains whether special rules apply to the prime minister’s top adviser – rules that ordinary Britons cannot invoke,” it said.

The New York Times said Johnson had now “latched himself” to his chief adviser, underlining “his deep reliance on Cummings, the architect of his election victory last year and the driving force behind his ambitious post-Brexit agenda. But it is unlikely to defuse the uproar over Cummings’s actions, which critics say send a signal that Britain’s leaders can ignore the rules they impose on others.”