Carrie ‘deeply unhappy’ at plan to make ex-Vote Leave aide PM’s chief of staff


Boris Johnson is facing a Downing Street meltdown amid claims fiancee Carrie Symonds is fighting plans to make a former Vote Leave aide his chief of staff.

Lee Cain, currently Downing Street’s director of communications, is said to be in ‘advanced discussions’ about the new post.

But leaks about the talks happening have sparked a backlash from Conservatives, who complained that the move would represent a ‘continuation of the present shambles’. 

Some warned it could be a ‘final nail in the coffin’ for the PM amid anger at the handling of the coronavirus crisis, and others even predicted he would be out of office within a year. 

Ms Symonds – a former media chief at CCHQ who has previously had a fractious relationship with Mr Cain – is reported to be ‘deeply unhappy’ at the prospect of his promotion. There were even rumours that she was behind news emerging of the behind-closed doors discussions.  

One former Tory adviser told MailOnline: ‘It’s the blonde assassin versus the skinhead scouser.’ 

Lee Cain (pictured with Boris Johnson), Downing Street’s director of communications, is said to be in ‘advanced discussions’ about the new post

Carrie Symonds - a former media chief at CCHQ who has previously had a fractious relationship with Mr Cain - is reported to be 'deeply unhappy' with the prospect of his promotion. She is pictured at the Remembrance Sunday service with Mr Johnson this weekend

Carrie Symonds – a former media chief at CCHQ who has previously had a fractious relationship with Mr Cain – is reported to be ‘deeply unhappy’ with the prospect of his promotion. She is pictured at the Remembrance Sunday service with Mr Johnson this weekend

The former Mirror chicken who became one of Downing Street’s biggest beasts 

Lee Cain is one of Mr Johnson’s most trusted advisers, having been by his side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work with him at the Foreign Office. When Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018, Mr Cain continued working with him.

He then helped run his leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications. The two men also worked together during the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Mr Cain was a press officer at the Vote Leave campaign masterminded by Mr Cummings and led by Mr Johnson and Michael Gove.

His promotion to chief of staff would raise concerns among some Tory MPs that the Vote Leave operation is tightening its grip on the heart of Government.

It would also be controversial with some elements of the media who have been bruised by Mr Cain’s uncompromising style.

Last year he ordered ministers to boycott BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because of perceived bias. The ban was only lifted when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Mr Cain has also imposed a boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain that has lasted for more than six months.

This year he sparked a walkout by political journalists after he banned reporters from news outlets deemed unfriendly from attending a No10 briefing with officials.

Mr Cain, who grew up on the fringes of Liverpool, has developed a reputation as an ardent Brexiteer and helped forge Mr Johnson’s tough stance last year which saw him controversially prorogue parliament in an attempt to prevent pro-Remain MPs blocking a no-deal departure.

But this year it emerged he saw the Vote Leave job as a route into politics rather than a vocation.

A former colleague from his time as a journalist told PR Week: ‘He told me: ‘I just want to get into politics. I’ve applied for two jobs and I’ve got one of them.

‘I’ve applied for head of broadcast for Remain and head of broadcast for Leave. If this ever comes out I’ll be in a lot of trouble’.’

The promotion would cap a stellar rise for former journalist Mr Cain, who used to dress up as the Daily Mirror’s election chicken, pursuing David Cameron and other leading Tories during the 2010 campaign.

The chief of staff will operate as the Prime Minister’s ‘fixer’ at the heart of Government, with the power to issue orders to civil servants across Whitehall.

And the move would fill a ‘hole’ at the centre of Mr Johnson’s administration. Neither Dominic Cummings nor the Prime Minister’s other leading adviser Lord Lister want the job. 

One ally of Mr Cain and Mr Cummings told MailOnline the job was ‘basically what he does anyway’. 

But the idea has caused consternation among Tory MPs, who have been urging Mr Johnson to appoint a heavyweight chief of staff to provide more ‘grip’ to a Government which has made a series of U-turns.

The Prime Minister is reported to have approached former Tory chairman Lord Feldman about the job, only to be turned down by the peer – who was a close confidant of Mr Cameron during the EU referendum.

Some MPs hoped the creation of the role could help rein in controversial chief adviser Mr Cummings. But Mr Cain served as a loyal lieutenant to Mr Cummings at Vote Leave and remains one of his closest allies. 

He is believed to have been furious that Allegra Stratton, the former Guardian and ITV journalist, had been appointed as the new No 10 Press Secretary against his wishes. 

One gloomy former minister said the appointment would make little difference, as if ‘the same people are still involved then the job title is irrelevant’. 

‘It hasn’t been up to anywhere near scratch so this new promotion will be a continuation of the present shambles,’ the MP told MailOnline. 

Another told the Telegraph: ‘The lunatic will have literally taken over the asylum…. he is Dom Cummings’ puppet and Dom Cummings is an advocate for lockdowns.’

She added: ‘If this is true and comes to pass it will be the final nail for the PM.’ 

The BBC reported that Ms Symonds was ‘deeply unhappy’ with the plan. 

Rumours are swirling in Tory circles that the story was planted by her allies to avoid the appointment becoming a fait accompli.  

And a Tory MP said of her influence: ‘Carrie has a lot of power in the current circumstances that people underestimate.’ 

A spokeswoman for Ms Symonds declined to comment on ‘speculation’. 

Senior member of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said MPs needed somebody to ‘get hold of’ in the seat of power.

Declining to comment on speculation about Mr Cain, Sir Geoffrey said: ‘I think it is essential for the Prime Minister to have a chief of staff.

‘Somebody we can get hold of if we really need to.

‘I think it is a good thing that somebody would keep an overall view on it.

‘I think it’s important to have a chief of staff.’

Mr Cain has so far not commented on the situation. 

A Number 10 spokesman said: ‘I’m not going to comment on the speculation today about personnel matters in Number 10 I’m afraid.’ 

A Whitehall source said overnight: ‘The PM desperately needs a chief of staff. Dom (Cummings) does not operate in that way and knows it. He has always said he does not want the title but won’t serve under anyone who has it. But he would be able to work with Lee, because he knows he is an ally, not a threat.’ 

The promotion would cap a stellar rise for the former journalist who used to dress up as the Daily Mirror's election chicken, pursuing David Cameron and other leading Tories during the 2010 campaign

The promotion would cap a stellar rise for the former journalist who used to dress up as the Daily Mirror’s election chicken, pursuing David Cameron and other leading Tories during the 2010 campaign

The Vote Leavers at the heart of power 

Dominic Cummings and Cleo Watson are two of the key Vote Leave alumni in Downing Street

Dominic Cummings and Cleo Watson are two of the key Vote Leave alumni in Downing Street

Boris Johnson inner circle includes a host of alumni from the Vote Leave campaign he spearheaded.

Promotion for Lee Cain would be confirmation of the enduring influence of the successful EU referendum battle on the shape of his government.

Mr Cain was one of the leading spokesmen for the campaign, and has been serving as No10 director of communications since Mr Johnson became PM.

Dominic Cummings – now the PM’s chief aide – is regarded as the strategic mastermind behind Vote Leave.

Other campaign veterans who became pivotal players at the heart of Downing Street include Cleo Watson and Oliver Lewis. 

Tory MP Dominic Raab was a key advocate for the Brexit push and is now Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State – effectively Mr Johnson’s deputy.

His senior adviser Rob Oxley also played a crucial role in Vote Leave. 

Priti Patel is in another of the great offices of state as Home Secretary.

And Michael Gove, the other architect of the Brexit campaign, is in a key Cabinet role despite his notoriously volatile relationship with Mr Johnson – whom he supported for the Tory leadership in 2016, but then betrayed. 

Mr Cain is one of Mr Johnson’s most trusted advisers, having been by his side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work with him at the Foreign Office. When Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018, Mr Cain continued working with him.

He then helped run his leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications. The two men also worked together during the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Mr Cain was a press officer at the Vote Leave campaign masterminded by Mr Cummings and led by Mr Johnson and Michael Gove.

His promotion to chief of staff would raise concerns among some Tory MPs that the Vote Leave operation is tightening its grip on the heart of Government.

It would also be controversial with some elements of the media who have been bruised by Mr Cain’s uncompromising style.

Last year he ordered ministers to boycott BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because of perceived bias. The ban was only lifted when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Mr Cain has also imposed a boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain that has lasted for more than six months.

This year he sparked a walkout by political journalists after he banned reporters from news outlets deemed unfriendly from attending a No10 briefing with officials.

Mr Cain has developed a reputation as an ardent Brexiteer and helped forge Mr Johnson’s tough stance last year which saw him controversially prorogue parliament in an attempt to prevent pro-Remain MPs blocking a no-deal departure.

But this year it emerged he saw the Vote Leave job as a route into politics rather than a vocation.

A former colleague from his time as a journalist told PR Week: ‘He told me: ‘I just want to get into politics. I’ve applied for two jobs and I’ve got one of them.

‘I’ve applied for head of broadcast for Remain and head of broadcast for Leave. If this ever comes out I’ll be in a lot of trouble’.’

No10’s key players and their convenient connections

Boris Johnson’s Government apparatus is intertwined with various parts of the Tory media and establishment through marriage and experience. 

Dominic Cummings, the PM’s shadowy Svengali worked with Lee Cain as he led the Vote Leave campaign to victory in the 2016 referendum, before they were both asked to join Mr Johnson’s new administration in Downing Street.

Mr Cummings is also married to Mary Wakefield, a senior journalist with the Spectator Magazine, a Tory bible that Boris Johnson once edited. 

The incoming No10 Press Secretary Allegra Stratton is a respected former journalist for the Guardian and ITV among others. But she is also married to James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator.

Elsewhere Dido Harding, the Tory peer who has faced much criticism after being brought in to run Test and Trace, has been married to Tory MP and former minister John Penrose for 25 years.

And current Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman is married to Kate Bingham, who was appointed  chairwoman of the UK vaccines taskforce in May. 

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