Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain departure: what really happened?

Was there a row or a nice chat, is the PM indecisive, and what of Carrie Symonds’s role?

One account had them swapping jokes and reminiscing about better times, another depicted a furious showdown. Just what went on this week between Boris Johnson and his senior aides Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain as they departed Downing Street has been subject to intense speculation.

What actually happened? The Guardian has attempted to unpick the competing versions apparently briefed by warring factions in Westminster.

The furious row v the good-natured farewell chat
On Friday, Johnson held a 45-minute meeting with Cummings and Cain in which, the Financial Times reported, he confronted the pair with text messages forwarded to his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, showing they had briefed against her. "In tense exchanges," the paper reported, "Mr Johnson accused his aides of briefing against him and his partner Carrie Symonds and criticised them for destabilising the government in the midst of tense Brexit negotiations." It added: "Mr Johnson told them to get out and never return."

A very different atmosphere was described in the Sunday Times. “Both [Cummings and Cain] told friends the meeting was ‘warm with lots of laughter’ as the trio recounted their battles together. ‘When you split up with a girlfriend, it’s best to move out quickly,’ a friend said.” It also quoted a senior No 10 source as saying the PM said the briefings had to stop.

The report added: “Having ousted his key aides, Johnson, typically, sought to minimise the confrontation, telling officials: ‘I told them we should get the gang back together’ to fight the next election.”

Johnson is said to have visited Cain in his office, signed a pair of “Get Brexit Done” boxing gloves, and made a farewell speech. “He’s the only one of my staff who always answers the phone calls – day or night,” Johnson reportedly said, adding: “I sometimes wait for days for Dom to return them.”

What’s clear is that, despite Cummings’ claim that he was always planning to leave at the end of the year (on which, more below), the dramatic and public nature of his and Cain’s departure was not what they or the prime minister had envisaged. All parties may have put on a good-natured front on Friday, but anger, shock and hurt on both sides are difficult to deny.

Symonds calls Johnson 20 times a day and has been nicknamed 'Princess Nut Nut' v she gives much-needed advice as 'one of the few around the PM who understands the Tory party'
One ally of Cain and Cummings claimed Johnson's fiancee calls his private office "more than 20 times a day demanding that he leave meetings to call her back". This was dismissed as untrue by Symonds's allies and civil servants – the latter described as "impartial" by the Sunday Times.

The Mail on Sunday reported on a nickname for Symonds apparently circulating among Cummings loyalists: Princess Nut Nuts, or Princess Nut Nut (there is division over this, too), sometimes expressed in emojis. The Daily Telegraph, citing sources, reported that the prime minister was particularly riled by the nickname.

A source told the Guardian that neither Cummings nor Cain themselves used this expression, though someone perceived as being in their camp did.

The Sunday Times, which also highlighted a former cabinet minister’s concern over Symonds’ influence in non-ministerial appointments, quoted a friend of Symonds hitting back: “Carrie was deliberately dragged into it at a key moment to damage her and to undermine the case she was making. They want her to look like Lady Macbeth. She is one of the very few people around the prime minister who understands the Conservative party.”

There were also claims that misogyny lay behind the attacks. It is notable that Symonds’s position on Cain – which led to Cummings’ exit – was echoed by Allegra Stratton, the new No 10 press secretary, and Munira Mirza, director of the policy unit. Johnson has previously been accused of presiding over a “blokey” government.

The prime minister is 'indecisive' v Cummings is 'trying to blame everyone else but himself for his demise'
Cummings left No 10 with a broadside against his boss, the Daily Telegraph reported, telling allies that Johnson was "indecisive" and that he and Cain had to rely on the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, to provide direction. This allegation was backed by a source speaking to the Guardian.

However, the Telegraph carried the counter-claim from “sources loyal to the prime minister” that complaints of dithering were simply “the occasions when the PM won’t do what he [Cummings] wants him to” and that Cummings was “trying to blame everyone but himself” for his demise.

The paper quoted a source as saying: “The truth is that Dom will pay no attention to something for months, then he will get interested in it and expect it to happen in two or three days. That’s not how government works. When he says Boris is indecisive, what he actually means is that Boris won’t do something he wants. That’s not the same thing.”

Those whose memories go back four years will recall Johnson admitting that he penned two articles on Brexit – one for and one against staying in the EU, though he described the former as “semi-parodic”. So indecision is not new to him, it seems.

Cummings was always planning to go by the end of the year v he was given the boot
While it has been widely reported that the prime minister ordered Cummings to leave Downing Street on Friday, Johnson's top adviser sought to spin a different version of events a day earlier.

In a series of tweets, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, reported late on Thursday evening that Cummings was off. She wrote: “Senior No 10 source says Dominic Cummings is out by Christmas – after hours of speculation HE tells me ‘rumours of me threatening to resign are invented, rumours of me asking others to resign are invented . . .’”

She added: “He said ‘tonight’s rumours that somehow the Brexit negotiations are involved are invented and comical to anybody who knows whats happening in no10’ but when asked about rumours he would quit at Christmas Cummings said . . . ‘My position hasn’t changed since my January blog’ – when he planned to make himself ‘redundant’ by the end of 2020 –- he’s off.”

In fact, his lengthy January blog – in which he infamously said Downing Street wanted to hire “weirdos and misfits” – was not quite so explicit about when he would go. Cummings wrote at the time: “We want to improve performance and make me much less important – and within a year largely redundant.”

On Friday the Guardian was told by two sources that Johnson had ordered Cummings and Cain to leave Downing Street with immediate effect rather than stay until Christmas. That account stands.

– Guardian