The political storm surrounding Johnson and his team of advisers broke on the same day that the UK’s coronavirus death toll passed the eyewatering 50,000 figure.
Shortly after 9 p.m. local time Wednesday, Johnson’s political advisers briefed Westminster journalists that Lee Cain, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and one of his closest political allies, had resigned from his job. Downing Street had spent the day fielding complaints from Conservative lawmakers who were alarmed at news reports suggesting that Cain was set to be promoted to Johnson’s chief of staff.
UK media reports also cited sources suggesting that Johnson’s fiancee, former Conservative director of communications Carrie Symonds, was opposed to Cain’s promotion.
Conservative MPs believe that the story was leaked as part of a power grab by Cummings in order to pressure the PM into giving Cain the job.
“It seems clear to me that they tried to bounce Boris into making Cain his chief of staff by leaking it to the media. But none of us wanted that and we are sick of not being listened to,” a former cabinet minister told CNN. “We have had enough Cummings, Cain and the damage they are doing to our party. So yesterday we made sure Boris understood that via the chief whip.”
That backlash appeared to have the desired effect and, after meeting with the Prime Minister, Cain resigned.
“It has been a privilege to work as an adviser for Mr Johnson for the last three years — being part of a team that helped him win the Tory leadership contest, secure the largest Conservative majority for three decades – and it was an honour to be asked to serve as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff,” Cain said in a statement.
Johnson said he wanted to “thank Lee for his extraordinary service to the government over the last four years. He has been a true ally and friend.”
So, what happened to these close friends? There had been speculation that Cain was upset by Johnson’s decision to hire a new press secretary, Allegra Stratton, to front the soon-to-start daily Downing Street briefings. Stratton is not only a high-profile former journalist, but most recently worked as an adviser to Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s finance minister.
Downing Street sources told CNN that while Cain was in favor of hiring Stratton, his real gripe was that he wanted her to report to him. She will instead report directly to Johnson, effectively sidelining the director of communications.
The British government is entrenched in bitter factionalism. There are too many camps to list, but a core disagreement exists between team Sunak and team Cummings — especially when it comes to the handling of the pandemic.
Sunak’s team wants to avoid lockdowns wherever possible in order to hasten the economic recovery; Cummings is more comfortable with lockdowns. And for what it’s worth, more Conservatives who sit in Parliament favor the Sunak approach.
However, Johnson’s government has operated an unusually centralized approach to governing, which has irked many former allies during the coronavirus crisis. This has meant that Cummings, in the eyes of Conservative lawmakers, has won his battles more often than not.
Meanwhile, the UK economy is struggling to recover from the effects of restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic. Amid a soaring second wave of coronavirus cases, England entered a second, month-long national lockdown on November 5. Strict measures have also been imposed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in recent weeks.
The appointment of Stratton and perceived sidelining of Cain would count as one of the most significant internal battles that Cummings would have lost since entering Downing Street last year.
“Advisers usually take the bullet for the PM, not the other way around. Boris nearly killed his career defending Cummings during lockdown,” said a senior Conservative MP. “Boris does not seem to realize how much damage Cummings is doing him.”
The Cain row appears to have given hope to those who would like Johnson to stop listening to Cummings quite so often in all areas of policy, which of course has implications beyond the UK’s pandemic response.
Cain was a key part of the Vote Leave team which followed Johnson into Downing Street, having successfully campaigned for UK voters to reject EU membership in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Johnson’s willingness to shed such an ally has led to some No 10 staff wondering if this indicates a broader loosening of the Vote Leave grip on Johnson.
“I think something bigger is going on with the EU deal,” said one Downing Street insider, referencing the ongoing Brexit negotiations which are approaching their end. The insider suggested a concession from London might be on the cards.
As things stand on Brexit, a concession from London would be the simplest route to a breakthrough that would lead to a deal.