DOMINIC CUMMINGS has never played by the rules. He’s always been a maverick, questioning the establishment and kicking at conventions.

His first public campaign was in 2004, leading the North-East Says No to a regional assembly that the all-powerful Blair-led government was going to impose on the region with the full approval of all the regional institutions. He, though, questioned the establishment, kicked against the convention and launched a white elephant with the result that the North-East said a resounding no.

But today he is no longer an outsider. For all his shaven head and skanky t-shirts, he is a fully paid up member of the establishment. He is the chief adviser to the Conservative Prime Minister; he, controversially, has attended meetings of the Government’s scientific committee, Sage, which has created the structures by which Britain has tackled the deadly pandemic.

Mr Cummings now draws up the rules.

He comes up with the three word slogans – take back control, get Brexit done, stay at home – that ensure those rules get lodged in the public minds.

But he didn’t stay at home. He flouted those rules. In the heat of the coronavirus crisis, when lockdown was at its tightest, when the rules said he and his wife should have been screwed down for 14 days in their London home with symptoms of the disease, he drove 260-plus miles to Durham.

The Northern Echo:

Does he have an excuse? Richmond MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak tweeted on Saturday: “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t.”

Mr Cummings feared that, with both he and his wife coming down with Covid, there would be no one in London to get the shopping in for them and their four-year-old son – a chore his sisters and nieces in his hometown of Durham were apparently willing to do.

It seems unlikely that if Mr Cummings had pitched up with such an excuse in Mr Sunak’s North Yorkshire he would have been welcome. In those early days, villagers in his constituency were taking car numbers of lockdown-breaking dog-walkers who had travelled a handful of miles from Darlington, and there was huge concern that second home owners would descend on the dales, bringing the virus with them.

That was the entire purpose of the lockdown rules Mr Cummings helped draw up: to contain the virus and prevent it spreading. Government guidance for those with symptoms was “do not leave your home for any reason”.

Most people, from tower block to terraced home, abided by those rules. They made painful sacrifices, desperately trying to get a supermarket delivery slot while the kids drove them up the walls, unable to see their families, some even unable to attend the funerals of their loved ones.

Stay at home? Not for Dom. This strategist who did a brilliant job in devising messages so that old Etonian Boris Johnson could reach into the hearts of working class communities like the Tees Valley and County Durham is fortunate that his parents have a property near Durham that is large enough to have an unoccupied family-sized bolthole on it.

The Northern Echo:

It is hard not to see it as a case of one rule for the ordinary people but another rule for members of the establishment, like Mr Cummings.

That in turn leads to questions of the credibility of the lockdown: if the rules can be circumnavigated by Mr Cummings, why can’t everyone else who fancies a Bank Holiday on the beach just drive off?

And the perception of rule-bending leads to questions about the trustworthiness of the Government.

At the start of the pandemic, the public gave Mr Johnson and his Government the benefit of the doubt. They trusted them where the media didn’t, and they knew this was an unprecedented crisis that was going to have to be fumbled through. The public willed their popular PM to pull through his own health emergency as he was hospitalised by the virus.

However, as we approach week nine of the lockdown, the Government’s approval rating has for the first time dropped to a negative figure – minus four. The difficulties with PPE provision and testing, the crisis in care homes, the confusing “stay alert” message, the uncertainty about facemasks, the doubts about track and trace, the break-up of the United Kingdom into four different parts, the mess over school reopening and then the 24 hour U-turn on NHS surcharges have all nibbled away at the public’s early days hope that its Government was in control.

This week, Mr Johnson was scheduled to continue to roll out his roadmap of easing the lockdown. There will be nuanced messages as we enter this crucial phase of delicately restarting the economy without reigniting the virus, but they will be blotted out by the smoke coming from the Cummings’ fire if he stays. The flames are bound to be fanned by further questions about how much Mr Johnson knew, about whether Downing Street really sought to contradict the most outstanding police force in the country, about whether Mr Cummings can prove he wasn’t in Barnard Castle or Houghall Woods in direct contravention of the rules he wrote which he doesn’t think apply to him?

Tory MPs outside Mr Johnson’s inner clique appear to be able to see this as pressure on him is growing.

The most pointed intervention on Sunday morning came from backbencher Steve Baker, the former leader of the European Research Group who, like Mr Cummings, was a pronounced Brexiteer. He spoke of how Mr Cummings was burning through the Government’s political capital, consuming its credibility, and he concluded: “The country can’t afford this nonsense, this pantomime. Dominic should go.”