The Tories stumble from one shambles to another over coronavirus

Rowena Mason and Peter Walker

For the second time in a week, Dominic Cummings is incurring the wrath of Tory backbenchers: this time over No 10’s belated decision to impose a quarantine on travellers who come to the UK.

After withstanding the fury of Conservative MPs over his lockdown road trips last week, they are now on the warpath against Cummings since the controversial imposition of 14-day blanket quarantine requirement for those entering the country from abroad.

Not only are the backbench malcontents questioning the scientific and economic basis for imposing it, but they are having to field queries from annoyed constituents. They have heard government messaging about the easing of restrictions – and now want to know if they can go on holiday.

Even some cabinet ministers, such as Grant Shapps, are believed to have argued for the idea of “air bridges” – reciprocal arrangements with other countries that have similar infection rates that would allow for quarantine to be waived.

For the time being, the quarantine policy has won.

Both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, the home secretary, robustly defended it on Wednesday, saying it was essential to bring down the risk of new infections from abroad.

However, they didn’t get much help from the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who refused to say that the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies endorsed a blanket quarantine policy for all travellers. Instead, he said only that “measures like this are most effective when the number of cases is very low in this country and when applied to countries from higher rates”.

To add to the general sense of confusion, the Daily Mail – highly hostile to the quarantine idea – reported on Wednesday that it was Cummings’ pet plan that had been briefed to the Times newspaper as a “dead cat” to distract from the care homes crisis. A No 10 source rubbished that suggestion, saying it was untrue and that the policy was in circulation long before that point. The Times did not respond to a request for comment.

With its majority of 80 and just six months after an election, Johnson’s government is supposed to be still in its honeymoon phase. But the mood of the backbenchers no longer feels that way. Many Tory MPs – especially those with a libertarian bent – are clamouring for a quicker easing of the lockdown, with the quarantine revolt a sign they are unhappy with any new stricter measures that have economic consequences.

At the same time, there is a sense of unease about whether their own government is sufficiently competent – something exploited this week by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, with his accusation that Johnson is “winging it” and needs to “get a grip”.

Backbenchers have watched and defended the government as it has been accused of bungling the timing of the lockdown, the distribution of personal protective equipment, the decision to stop community testing for the virus, the failure to produce a track and trace app, and the belated quarantine.

But the postbags from their constituents complaining of Cummings’ behaviour during the lockdown has felt for many Conservative MPs like the last straw that caused them to break ranks and criticise one of the most senior people at the heart of the government.

Many have no love for Cummings – and most have told constituents they have never met or spoken to the aide – and they are already seizing on his moment of weakness to undermine some the policies that No 10 espouses, including the quarantine for travellers.

Related: The Guardian view on governing after lockdown: Boris Johnson's grip is weak | Editorial

The sense of a government not entirely in control of events has been exacerbated by Johnson’s sporadic invisibility, amid regular speculation he has yet to fully recover from his very serious bout of Covid-19. On Tuesday, No 10 announced a new plan for the Downing Street press briefings, which will go from daily to five days a week – but with Johnson due to lead only one.

No 10 is once again launching a fightback against this perception of drift, with its overhauled system of ministerial committees to tackle the crisis. But there is a familiar feel to the messaging that Johnson is taking back control – an idea that surfaced when he was under pressure to order a lockdown and then again after his illness.

Tory backbenchers have already forced a U-turn this week on the new arrangements for a return to physically voting in parliament, with the government now allowing proxy votes for the most at risk. They are also flexing their muscles over the Huawei decision, applying pressure on No 10 to phase out the Chinese company from the 5G network as soon as possible.

Johnson’s defence of the quarantine plans at his daily press conference shows he is not backing down on that just yet, but the signs are there that it may not last for long before being replaced with another solution – mostly likely the “air corridors” or screening at airports.

At that point, it is likely to be added to the growing list of policies that the government has mishandled over the course of the epidemic, giving another reason for concern among Tory MPs that Johnson has not been at the top of his game during this crisis and a sense that Cummings is not unassailable.