BORIS Johnson’s plea for the country to “move on” from the damaging Dominic Cummings row was met with a cross-party barrage of critical questions from senior MPs as he faced a charge of putting loyalty to his chief aide before the national interest.

Fiery exchanges during the Prime Minister’s first appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee indicated the pressure on Downing St over Mr Cummings was showing no sign of easing as the controversy moves into its seventh day.

And as the number of Conservative MPs demanding the aide go rose to 40, it emerged Penny Mordaunt, the Cabinet Office Minister and former Defence Secretary, admitted there were “inconsistencies” in Mr Cummings’ account of his trip from London to Durham when he was accused of repeatedly breaking the lockdown rules.

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In an email to constituents, the Portsmouth MP said while Mr Cummings’ future in Government was a “matter for the Prime Minister,” she admitted she could “fully understand how angry people are” and believed there was no doubt the aide “took risks”.

Ms Mordaunt added: “What is clear is that the scenes of the last few days will have undermined key public health messages. I deeply regret this and am very sorry for it.”

At Westminster, Mr Johnson urged politicians to draw a line under the Cummings controversy and decried what he termed as the continuing “political ding-dong”.

He rejected a call for Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, to investigate his aide’s actions at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, saying, in the circumstances, it would “not be a very good use of official time”.

In one combative exchange, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, accused Mr Johnson of “ducking” questions and of “trashing” public health messages.

The Yorkshire MP, who asked about parents with Covid-19 and whether they should emulate the No 10 aide or stay at home, told the PM: “The reason you are ducking this and not giving people a straight answer is to protect Dominic Cummings. The reason you sent ministers out to say fudgey things is because you are trying not to incriminate Dominic Cummings and you don’t want to apologise for him.

“The problem is that means you are putting your political concerns ahead of clear public health messages to parents who have coronavirus.”

Mr Johnson, who insisted he was “not ducking” anything, argued what the British people wanted was “to, as far as we possibly can, lay aside party political point-scoring and put the national interest first and be very clear with the British public about what we want to do and take this country forward”.

He added: “Frankly, when they hear nothing but politicians squabbling and bickering it’s no wonder they feel confused and worried.”

In another combative contribution, Labour’s Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, forced the PM to agree that he had seen the evidence that exonerated Mr Cummings.

But when she suggested Sir Mark should also see it or it should be published to remove the political row, Mr Johnson replied: “It would not be doing my job if I were now to shuffle this problem into the hands of officials who, believe me, Meg, are - as the public would want - working flat out to deal with coronavirus...

"Quite frankly, I'm not certain right now that an inquiry into that matter is a very good use of official time. We are working flat out on coronavirus."

He went on: "I totally understand public indignation, I totally understand that, but I do think…it would be much better if we could now move on and focus on the next steps."

Tory backbencher Simon Hoare, who chairs the Northern Ireland Committee, warned the PM the nation would be "far less energetic" about obeying future restrictions as "a direct result of the activities of your senior adviser".

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Mr Johnson hit back, saying: "I don't think that's true about how the British people will respond to the next phases, to how to work the test and trace system, I don't think that's how they responded at all throughout the crisis.

"If, just suppose for a second that you were right, which I don't accept, all the more reason now for us to be consistent and clear in our message driving those key messages."

Earlier, the SNP’s Pete Wishart suggested the PM had been “brave in sacrificing your credibility and popularity in your own government just to stand by your man”.

The Perth MP accused Mr Johnson of having “managed to unite the nation in condemnation” over his handling of the Cummings affair and, pointing out how a poll suggested 65% of the public said his aide’s conduct now made it less likely they would follow lockdown rules, he asked: “Surely no man is more important than keeping this nation safe?”

The PM, stressing how a lot that had been written about his aide was incorrect, told Mr Wishart: “Notwithstanding the party political points you may seek to make, your point about the message I respectfully disagree.

“The best way to clarify the message and the best way for people to understand what we need to do next is for us all to move on and focus on what we are doing tomorrow.” That is, the launch of the UK Government's test and trace scheme for England.

In other responses Mr Johnson:

*admitted the "brutal reality" was the UK had not learned the lessons of past pandemics in developing sufficient testing and tracing capacity;

*suggested so-called "air bridges" to allow quarantine-free travel could be introduced from the end of next month if agreements were reached with other countries and

*revealed the Government would bring a “full post-corona economic recovery package” before the Commons rises for its summer recess on July 21.