On a balmy bank holiday weekend in May, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the country sat glued to their phones as the biggest political scandal of the year unfolded first in our newspapers, and then on the television. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then-chief advisor Dominic Cummings travelled to Durham in what was widely viewed as a breach of lockdown rules — and with that, Barnard Castle forever became a meme.
Public trust in the government dropped, as did compliance with the lockdown measures. Cummings’ jaunt to Durham — or jaunts, depending on who you’re asking — cost the Conservative government, and the nation, dearly. This is the inside story of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle.
Reporters at The Guardian and The Daily Mirror receive tip-offs that Cummings has been spotted in Durham.
Matt Weaver, reporter, The Guardian: It all started on 6th April. I was doing the Guardian’s coronavirus live blog, and just to keep things ticking over, I wrote a post saying that Cummings wasn’t at work in Downing Street, but was in contact with officials. A person called me up and said: “I can tell you why he’s not in Downing Street. I’ve just seen him in Durham.”
I thought, ‘fuck, that’s really explosive.’ At first I thought they must have been mistaken. But they were very detailed in their description of Cummings, and very clear. And of course, they had that incredible detail about ABBA being played from the house. [The source stated that they saw Dominic Cummings outside his parents’ house in Durham on 5th April, whilst “Dancing Queen” played in the background.]
So that person forever became known as the ABBA source. The Guardian’s lobby team put it to Downing Street, and they refused to comment. I knew I couldn’t run the story based on a single source, so I desperately tried to hunt down other leads. I kept going back to the story and really kicking the tyres on it. And then I got a tip off that Cummings had been spotted in Houghall bluebell woods.
Pippa Crerar, political editor of The Daily Mirror: I was sitting at home on 19th April when a contact phoned. One of their friends had just been for a walk in Houghall bluebell woods and they swore they had just seen Dominic Cummings with a woman they presumed was his wife. I spoke to my colleague Jeremy Armstrong, and he said: “Hang on, I think I got a tip about this a few weeks ago.” He’d made initial inquiries, but hadn’t got anywhere.
We had this one very strong claim from someone who’d seen Cummings in the woods – we called that source “Bluebell” – but we couldn’t get the story over the line. We were calling contacts and coming up against a brick wall. Then I tracked down another source who’d seen Cummings outside his house — and got wind the The Guardian was also chasing the story.
Weaver: By now I realised that my ABBA source had been approached by Pippa to talk, but I was having trouble getting Bluebell to talk to me — Pippa had a better in with them.
Crerar: It’s unusual to put aside the normal rivalry between publications, but both Matt and I had reached a place where we couldn’t go any further on our own. I felt that this story was so strongly in the public interest that we needed to get it over the line. I used to work at The Guardian, so I put in a phone call to a senior editor there and said: “Why don’t we collaborate?” Luckily, they’d been thinking the same thing.
Weaver: At first, I think we were both a little disappointed when we realised we were both chasing the same story, because we wanted to do the story by ourselves, and these collaborations often end in tears. But Pippa was absolutely brilliant to work with from start to finish.
Crerar: Matt is such a forensic journalist. He could sit there for hours going into the minutiae of a sighting. And I know lots of people in politics and like to get on the phone with them and persuade them to say things they don’t want to tell me. We were a good team.
Weaver: Between us, we’d got two good sources, but we knew that we needed more. In the interim, we also put the allegations to Downing Street again; and again, they said they weren’t going to comment on it.
Crerar: As a political journalist, you learn to read into denials or background briefings. What was clear to me was that this wasn’t a definitive denial. Which meant we were probably onto something. But – and this is a big but – Dominic Cummings wasn’t your normal political player. The Number 10 operation under him had a strategy of doubling down on errors rather than holding their hands up. This was new territory. We had to play it by ear. But I knew it was potentially a big story. I remember lying in bed for weeks at night, thinking about it, usually with a feeling of despair, that we wouldn’t get it over the line.
Dominic Cummings’ wife, the journalist Mary Wakefield, publishes an article in the Spectator in which she discusses falling ill with COVID-19 — but makes no mention of a family trip to Durham.
Weaver: By now, Dr Neil Ferguson and Dr Catherine Calderwood had resigned for breaches of the lockdown rules. But we’re still struggling to corroborate the story. A lot of what I was doing in this period was keeping my ABBA source sweet. I'm speaking to them virtually every day. By 22nd May, lockdown restrictions are being eased. Pippa and I are worried the story will lose its value.
Then out of the blue, [Jeremy] Armstrong calls up Durham Police, who he has a good relationship with, and says: “Do you know if Cummings has been up at all?” And they say: “Yes, he has. We’ll get you a statement in a few hours.” And they were true to their word. And all of a sudden, we had an independent source confirming what we’d been trying to prove for nearly a month: that Cummings had gone to Durham.
Crerar: When we got the statement from Durham Police, that was the last piece of the jigsaw we needed to publish the story. Everything happened very fast from then. It was such a strange scenario. Normally with a big story you’re in an office with your editor, but I was breaking this story from my bedroom with my husband looking after my kids downstairs.
Weaver: I’ve never had a story like this, not even close. I’ve had about one or two front pages, and they were minor August jobs. This was the biggest story by a country mile I’d ever done. I knew it was going to be big, but I was also really nervous about how it would go down.
The Guardian and Daily Mirror publish their investigation, revealing that Dominic Cummings was sighted on Sunday 5th April outside his parents’ house in Durham in an apparent breach of lockdown rules. The reaction is explosive.
Weaver: Five minutes before we published the story, Pippa sent me three sick face emojis. And then we published, and, boom, everything instantly went bonkers. Piers Morgan called for him to resign within minutes. It was leading all the news bulletins by 10PM. [Guardian media correspondent] Jim Waterson put together a montage of Cummings running out of Number 10 to the tune of “Dancing Queen” in the Guardian reporters’ WhatsApp group. It was thrilling.
The following morning, journalists wait outside Cummings’ north London home for his reaction.
Crerar: The next morning when he came out of his house he dismissed it as being not of interest to anyone. He thought it was a Westminster bubble story.
Weaver: I went into the office on Saturday morning to cover the reaction to the story. At 10:09AM I get a phone call from Robin Lees, the retired chemistry teacher. He was amazing. The perfect source. He provided three things we’d never had before.
Firstly, he was prepared to go on the record saying that he saw Dominic Cummings in Barnard Castle. Secondly, he’d taken down his licence plate. And thirdly, he had proof from the time, because he had his Google search result showing he’d looked up the licence plate.
It was manna from heaven. I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking so much when we spoke, I couldn’t take any notes. While I was doing this, Pippa had persuaded Bluebell to go on the record saying that they’d seen Cummings in Houghall Woods on 19th April, albeit anonymously.
Alan Gowland, 62, a former GlaxosmithKline engineer, who will later go on to tell The Sunday Times that he spotted Cummings in Barnard Castle: I usually go walking myself most mornings, around 10AM. Being retired, you can do what you want. On 12th April, I was walking over Scar Top walkway when I saw Cummings. I have a friend, Richard, who looks a bit like him, so I put on my glasses, just to check, and then I realised it wasn’t Richard. I recognised his face, but his name eluded me at the time. But I knew that I knew him. I was racking my brains as I walked over the bridge, thinking, ‘Who is he?’ A few days later, a friend of mine got a text on his phone, saying that Dominic Cummings has been spotted in Barnard Castle. And I thought, ‘That’s who it was. One hundred percent.’
At 5PM, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defends Cumming at the Downing Street briefing, stating inaccurately that Cummings stayed put after he travelled to his parents’ house for childcare reasons.
Weaver: That was really something. Watching a cabinet minister lie their face off on national TV. But I was also shaking, because, you know, Cummings is so powerful. It was really intimidating.
At 7.30PM, The Daily Mirror and The Guardian publish a second story, stating that Cummings was spotted in Barnard Castle on 12th April by Lees, and also walking through Houghall Woods by an unnamed source on 19th April, indicating that Cummings made at least two trips to Durham.
Weaver: To outsiders it looked like the classic one-two journalistic punch. But it was more of a lucky break, to get Barnard Castle that day. It was seat-of-the-pants type stuff. That evening when I was cycling home, my neighbours were having a socially distanced street party. As I cycled down my street, they gave me a round of applause. It was fantastic.
The following morning, Saturday May 23rd, reporters gather outside Cummings’ house again.
Sam Holder, freelance TV reporter: It’s not a fun job to do, doorstopping. In an ideal situation, a person would agree to do an interview instead, so you don’t have to stand outside their house, waiting for them to come out. People look at the pictures and see a mob of journalists and think it’s intimidating. But Cummings is used to that. It’s part of his job. When he came out, he seemed relatively nonplussed. We weren’t some mob trying to cause mayhem. When his wife came out with his child, we let her pass, and didn’t film them. Things look differently on the television.
Government ministers defend Cummings with coordinated tweets. That evening, Boris Johnson defends Cummings at the daily Downing Street press conference.
David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester: In that press conference, Johnson said that Cummings was just following human instinct. Those words really concerned me. Because human instinct is often quite selfish, and most of the world’s faiths would argue that it is seldom a good guide. Human instinct tends towards selfishness, to the detriment of the wider community. The purpose of staying at home to protect the NHS was to save the lives of everyone, especially the most vulnerable. By saying that what Cummings had done was acceptable, Johnson was endangering lives.
Crerar: During the press conference, Johnson said that bits of the story were “palpably false”. He didn’t say which bits, but it was implied that the second trip to Durham, and the walk through the bluebell woods, never happened. In Durham, Dave and Clare Edwards were watching that press conference. They were not the sort of people you’d expect to be anti-Cummings. Dave was a Tory-voting businessman. I got an email that evening from a furious Clare who said that they saw Cummings in the woods that morning. They were certain of the date, because it was the day after their son’s birthday. They were not the sort of people to go to the press, but she was so angry about it she felt that she had to.
The Bishop of Manchester: I spent a bit of time thinking about whether I should intervene. I knew if I said something political it would get retweeted a lot. The Church of England has the 10 commandments for social media: we are allowed to make political statements, as long as we are courteous and engage appropriately online. I looked on social media to see what the other bishops were saying, and by then around a dozen had made comments. So I tweeted that Cummings should be sacked, went to bed, woke up and found out that thousands of people had retweeted it.
Sunday, May 24. Conservative MPs, including prominent backbenchers Steve Baker and Sir Roger Gale, call for Cummings to resign. (In all, 45 Tory MPs would eventually call for Cummings to be fired.)
Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet: I have previous with Cummings. I regarded him as a foul-mouthed unelected oath who wasn’t fit for office, and I told Johnson as much to his face, long before the Barnard Castle affair. Johnson looked slightly shocked. The whole Cummings episode highlighted that I was right to be concerned. Cummings believed that there was one rule for him and another rule for everyone else. And look, I’m old. I’ve been in the House for 37 years. I’m not exactly looking for promotion. What have I got to lose? Younger MPs, they couldn’t say anything, because they were ambitious and had careers on the line and knew if they stuck their head over the parapet, possibly they’d never make it to minister or select committee chairman.
Reporters gather outside Cummings’s house for a second morning.
Minnie Stephenson, Channel 4 news reporter: He was taking such a long time to come out, and it was freezing, so I Deliveroo-ed two coffees to my house, for me and the cameraman. And then, sod’s law, as soon as the driver arrives with the coffee, Cummings comes out. I’m running after Cummings, asking him my question — I think I said, “Is it one rule for you and one rule for everyone else?” — and meanwhile, this poor, bewildered Deliveroo driver is in the background, holding the coffees. You can actually see him in the footage.
As public anger continues to mount, and with a deluge of critical front pages in once-friendly newspapers, a press conference is scheduled in the Downing Street rose garden for the afternoon of Monday, 25th May.
The Bishop of Manchester: I probably did half a dozen media interviews on the Monday morning. I think the bishops helped push it into the news agenda for the third day. I don’t think the Rose Garden would have happened [without] the bishops. Cummings and Johnson would have drawn a veil over it.
Weaver: It was really extraordinary, the amount of political capital they were expending on Cummings. All that energy defending the indefensible, when you know, 45 of his own MPs were calling for him to resign, even the bishops were having a go.
After keeping reporters waiting for half an hour, Cummings delivers a public statement in which he defends driving to Durham on 27th March after fearing that he and his wife were falling ill with COVID-19, and worried about childcare arrangements for his son. Cummings states that he then drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. He denies reports that he made a second trip on 19th April, when he was spotted in Houghall Woods, and claims he has evidence to prove he was in London on that date.
Beth Rigby, political editor, Sky News: We had hardly any notice of Cummings was going to say. Some people thought he was going to resign, but I didn’t think that was likely, because why would he host a press conference if he was going to step down? I expected him to mount a defence of his actions. It was hot and muggy, and we all had to hand in our phones. We waited there for a long time — it felt like 45 minutes. It was surreal. This is where the Prime Minister hosts world leaders, and we’re waiting here for Dominic Cummings. It was an extraordinary, and unforgettable, press conference.
Weaver: At first, I was kind of delighted, watching the conference. He basically confirmed three out of the four key elements of our story: he was contacted by police, he went to Durham, and he went to Barnard Castle. The only thing he denied was the second trip. But then as it went on, it became infuriating. I was really angry about it. Reporters kept asking him whether he understood the public anger, and Cummings would shift it back on the press, and say the public anger was all down to the misleading way the story had been reported, which I thought was just ludicrous.
Crerar: The Prime Minister was expecting Cummings to apologise in the Rose Garden. It astonished him that that didn’t happen. He was furious Cummings refused to apologise.
Rigby: He didn’t apologise, because I think he genuinely believed he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d found a way to justify his behaviour, by saying he was protecting his wife and son, and if he apologised, he’d be admitting that he broke the rules. But the British people have a very strong sense of fairness — it’s one of our national values. A lot of people thought: ‘This isn’t fair.’ Whether or not Cummings could legally justify it was beside the point. It didn’t smell right.
Weaver: And then, of course, there was all that bonkers stuff with the eye test. He’d had days. He’d had days to come up with an excuse! And that was all he could work out.
The Bishop of Manchester: What a ridiculous thing to say. I suspect that did diminish Mr Cummings’ authority. He clung on a few months more, until he finally lost the Prime Minister’s confidence. But the moment when he became hauled below the waterline was probably when Barnard Castle became a meme.
Rigby: When I came out of the conference and saw the reaction to the Barnard Castle eye test story, I kicked myself for not asking Cummings about it. Because I know that, as a mum, if I thought there was anything wrong with my eyesight, there’s no way I would put my kid in the backseat of a car — no parent would ever do that. That was my biggest regret. I wished I’d asked him about that. But, you know, we weren’t allowed to read the statement, which I think was a very intentional decision, to weight the press conference so that journalists were on the back foot. There was so much new information in it, and it was hard to process it all without a copy to read in front of us. We were working at a disadvantage.
Crerar: The statement was very carefully phrased. He’d clearly run the statement past lawyers. The line in particular, stating he had phone data that proved he was in London on 19th April – that was an interesting way of putting it. Because Matt had timed the journey from Durham to London. We knew he’d been spotted in Hampstead Heath that afternoon. But it was possible to drive from Durham to London in time to make both sightings.
Stephenson: The Rose Garden, wow. The awkward choreography of Cummings calling all these respected political editors to the microphone like it was a school assembly. And the eye test stuff. It actually ended up being very funny. It wasn’t supposed to be, but it became this weird moment of comedy amongst all the misery, and humour.
Shortly after the press conference, social media erupts with Barnard Castle memes.
The Bishop of Manchester: I love the meme with the eye chart, where all the letters spell out Barnard Castle. That’s my favourite meme.
Gowland: People come to Barnard Castle now and pose with signs saying, “Should have gone to Specsavers”. The lads in the Indian restaurant in the town told journalists he’d been there. But he hadn’t, they just wanted the publicity.
Tim Mitchison, store director, Specsavers Barnard Castle: People take photos of the store every day. We regularly see passers-by stopping to pose outside the “Specsavers Barnard Castle” sign… At the end of the day, it’s got people talking about eye tests, so we can’t complain.
Gowland: I heard a rumour the local council wants to invite Cummings to come and switch on the Christmas lights.
Mitchison, Specsavers Barnard Castle: Hopefully it has helped spread an important health message about visiting an optician if you have any concerns about your eyes.
Cummings returns to his London home, where he is heckled by members of the public and his neighbours.
Stephenson: The mood outside his house was angry. I’ve never seen anything like it in a decade of journalism. Members of the public and neighbours were shouting insults at his house.
Weaver: You know, right at the very beginning of this, my ABBA source said to me, “It’s one rule for them, and one rule for everyone else.” They were the first person to say that, but I think everyone else felt it.
Boris Johnson appears before the Public Accounts Committee to discuss the UK’s coronavirus response, during which he is questioned extensively about Cummings’ trip to Durham.
Crerar: Meg Hillier, the chair of the PAC, asked Johnson whether he’d seen the evidence that Cummings claimed to have, proving he’d never been back up to Durham a second time. There’s this astonishing to-and-fro, where Johnson refuses to answer the question. You know, Cummings and Johnson talked for six hours after the story broke. You’d think he’d have asked to see the evidence that Cummings wasn’t there.
The Mail on Sunday reports that Robin Lees – who went on record to say he’d spotted Cummings – allegedly breached lockdown rules by collecting his daughter from her boyfriend’s house by car.
Matt Weaver: What was very sad about Robin Lees was that he got skewered by the Mail on Sunday for picking up his daughter, which was nowhere near as bad as what Cummings had done, plus the rules were very vague about pick-ups at the time, and it was after the initial lockdown had been lifted. The Mail monstered him, making him out to be a hypocrite. But you know, Robin told me that he was at a school governor’s meeting on Zoom, and he got a round of applause. And someone sent him a card, addressed to “Retired chemistry teacher, Barnard Castle”, thanking him for being so brave, and the postman got it to him.
In spite of the public anger, the Prime Minister indicates that the matter is closed, and Cummings will not be resigning. Durham Police closes the investigation into Cummings’ breach on 28th May, concluding that it may have been a “minor breach” of the rules. In the months following the scandal, Johnson's approval rating drops by 20 points.
Crerar: Why did the story blow up like it did? Well, firstly, Cummings dug in hard to defend himself. Had he accepted responsibility and apologised, it would have caused a storm, but nowhere near the scale it did. We wouldn’t have had 40 Tory MPs calling for him to go. The Prime Minister wouldn’t have expended such tremendous political capital on him. But more than that, my feeling is that, during the first lockdown, people followed the rules. Everyone made sacrifices. They couldn’t go to funerals or see loved ones before they died. So for Cummings not to abide by the rules he helped draw up absolutely incensed people.
Weaver: It really exposed how dependent the government were on Cummings, and how much political capital Johnson was prepared to expend on that guy. He was that powerful.
Sir Roger Gale: Cummings always had his own agenda. It wasn’t up to an unelected political advisor to be running the country. Johnson is malleable. He tends to bear the imprint of the last person he chatted with. He tells you what he thinks you want to hear. If you have someone like that as Prime Minister, and they’re surrounded by people like Dominic Cummings, that’s dangerous. We are a parliamentary democracy. Parliament does matter.
Crerar: I saw it repeatedly, when Boris was Mayor of London. He always wanted to defend people in his team, regardless of the evidence against them. You might think it was loyalty, and maybe it was, in part. Johnson likes clever, interesting people, and Cummings is that. People forget quite how much Johnson was cast out by the political establishment after he backed the Leave campaign. Tory polite society, the Camerons and Osbornes, rejected him. The people who stood by him, and became his new political allies, were the Vote Leave lot. But I think it was more that Boris was worried that people would view their mistakes as a failure of judgement on his part. Plus, he didn’t want to appear weak, by giving in to the other side. I never thought that Cummings would go. Johnson was so reliant on him. He was determined to stand by his man, regardless of the political fallout.
Sir Gale: If Cummings had cared about Johnson he would have resigned. He would have said, “Boss, I’ve made a pig’s ear of this.” Shouldn’t the man have gone himself? It was like he didn’t have any shame.
Research from University College London, published in the Lancet, reveals a sharp drop in public confidence in the government following the Cummings affair.
Professor Steven Reicher of the University of St Andrews, and a member of the behavioural science advisory group to SAGE: In the week after Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, trust in the government fell by 20 percent. The data shows very clearly that people stopped following the lockdown rules after Barnard Castle. Cummings trashed everything that had made the pandemic response effective. The government had been working so hard to build up that sense of community and a communal response, and in one fell swoop they destroyed all the foundations of a successful pandemic response.
The Mirror and The Guardian publish eyewitness testimony from Dave and Clare Edwards, and an additional fourth witness, on 6 August, stating they saw Cummings in Houghall bluebell woods on 19th April.
Crerar: Matt and I knew it wouldn’t make the same waves as the first story. But we felt it was important for the public record, to get it out there.
Weaver: I’m glad we got it out in the end. It helped. The way I see it is like we set off a very small grenade at the bottom of a dam. And slowly, the cracks appeared over the next six months. It wasn't the thing that got him. But it certainly undermined him.
Cummings resigns after weeks of infighting at Number 10.
Weaver: Why did the Prime Minister spend all that energy defending the indefensible then, only to get rid of Cummings so willingly now?
That month, Pippa Crerar and Matt Weaver are nominated for scoop of the year at the British Press Awards.
Weaver: You know, Pippa said it best on The Andrew Marr Show. This was old fashioned journalism. And for me, personally – you know, all of this started off because I was doing the Guardian live blog, which is grunt work, really. It’s made me very enthusiastic about journalism, and completely boosted my confidence about it. I think Hannah Jane Parkinson put it best, in a tweet when everything was really kicking off. She said, “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.” In other words, when journalism doesn’t exist. I felt terrifically proud when I saw that.
Crerar: A lot of people have said to me subsequently: are you disappointed, that you didn’t get your man? You didn’t get your scalp? But that was never my desired outcome. All I ever wanted to do was get the story out.
Number 10 and Dominic Cummings did not respond to requests for comment.