Downing Street a ‘nest of vipers’ as Johnson aide quits in power struggle

Dominic Cummings decides to stay in his post after resignation of close ally Lee Cain

 

Boris Johnson was on Thursday urged to reshape his chaotic and faction-riven Downing Street operation, after his communications chief quit in a power struggle over access to the British prime minister.

Tory MPs want Mr Johnson to restore order quickly, end the infighting and reconnect Downing Street to the parliamentary party, following the resignation of Lee Cain, one of the prime minister’s longest-serving aides.

Mr Cain quit as communications director after the prime minister reversed an earlier offer to make him his chief of staff, sparking threats of resignation from other Brexiteers at the heart of Mr Johnson’s team.

Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser and a close friend of Mr Cain, decided to stay after late night talks with the prime minister on Wednesday night, but Tory MPs hope his influence may now be waning.

David Frost, Britain’s chief EU negotiator and another ally of Mr Cain, was also considering his position on Wednesday night, but government sources revealed just before midnight that he had decided to stay in post.

Mr Cain said in a resignation statement that “it was an honour to be asked to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff”. Mr Johnson’s apparent decision to rescind the offer could have far-reaching consequences.

Carrie Symonds, Mr Johnson’s partner, was among those urging the prime minister not to appoint the former journalist to the post, arguing that he badly needed better advice.

Many Conservative ministers and MPs were on Wednesday night celebrating what they saw as the breaking of the grip of the Vote Leave cadre over Mr Johnson.

They blame his advisers for a series of mistakes in the handling of the Covid crisis and lament the communications strategy overseen by Mr Cain and Mr Cummings. Relations between MPs and Number 10 are dire.

One minister said: “One down, one to go.” Another said: “This is great news. It will lead to better government.” Many Tory MPs blame Mr Johnson’s advisers for the prime minister’s poor performance in recent months.

Critical moment

Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, told the BBC on Thursday there was “a real opportunity” for Mr Johnson to appoint a chief of staff to rebuild relations with the parliamentary party.

Sir Charles said Andrew Feldman, former chairman of the Conservative party under David Cameron, or David Canzini, a former Tory agent who helped Mr Johnson run his leadership campaign, would be good candidates.

Robert Jenrick, housing secretary, was dispatched on a media round on Thursday to claim the Downing Street row was mainly of interest to “political journalists” and that Mr Johnson was focused on running the country.

Mr Johnson’s bust-up with Vote Leave officials comes at a critical moment in the EU trade talks, as he considers making concessions to try to secure a deal next week.

Oliver Lewis, head of Number 10 Brexit policy, was also said to be “seriously considering” his position. EU trade negotiator Michel Barnier is holding talks with the Frost team in London on Thursday.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “On the day the UK became the first country in Europe to report 50,000 coronavirus deaths and the public endured another day of lockdown, Boris Johnson’s government is fighting like rats in a sack over who gets what job.”

Mr Johnson thanked Mr Cain for his “extraordinary service” in government over the past four years. “He has been a true ally and friend and I am very glad that he will remain director of communications until the new year and to help restructure the operation. He will be much missed.”

Rise in tensions

Rumours were swirling in Westminster that the aide resigned over an inquiry into the leaked news of the decision to lock down England on October 30th. While some Whitehall officials speculated that Mr Cain may have been “partially” to blame for the story, he has “categorically denied” responsibility.

Mr Cain’s departure followed a dramatic rise in tensions inside Number 10 following the appointment of Allegra Stratton, a former journalist and adviser to chancellor Rishi Sunak, to become Mr Johnson’s spokeswoman at new daily televised “White House-style” briefings.

One Whitehall official said: “Boris had to choose between Lee and Allegra. He has chosen Allegra.”

Mr Cain, a former tabloid journalist who was a senior figure in the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum, has adopted an abrasive approach to the media.

Ms Stratton has told colleagues that she wants a less confrontational style – an approach favoured by many Tory MPs. She declined to comment.

One well-placed Whitehall official said Number 10 had become a “nest of vipers”, adding “it’s all falling apart in there, it’s far worse than the outside world realises. Plus doing it in the middle of a pandemic is totally disgraceful.”

Senior figures in the government said that Ms Symonds, a former senior Conservative adviser, had privately argued against the appointment. “She can’t see how installing him would improve things,” one aide said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020