The advisers vying for Boris Johnson’s ear after exit of Lee Cain


Downing Street is today locked in a bitter and very public civil war over the direction of the Government after Whitehall was rocked by the resignation of Boris Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain. 

Mr Cain last night announced he will leave Number 10 at the end of the year after a standoff over whether he would be made Mr Johnson’s chief of staff. 

His appointment is said to have been blocked by the Prime Minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, and her supporters who believed elevating Mr Cain would be damaging.  

The exit of the spin doctor represents a significant blow to the so-called Vote Leave faction within Downing Street which is led by its ‘general’ Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser. 

The heart of Government is at war at a time when the PM needs his advisers and closest aides to work together more than ever as he wrestles with the coronavirus crisis.

Below is a breakdown of the key players within Number 10, how they have aligned themselves and the web of connections which runs throughout the Government. 

Boris Johnson 's top aide Lee Cain  (pictured arriving for work today) has announced he is quitting amid rumours Carrie Symonds was trying to block his promotion to Number 10 's chief of staff

Boris Johnson ‘s top aide Lee Cain  (pictured arriving for work today) has announced he is quitting amid rumours Carrie Symonds was trying to block his promotion to Number 10 ‘s chief of staff

The Brexit Boys

Lee Cain 

Mr Cain, Number 10’s director of communications, has been one of Mr Johnson’s closest allies in Westminster since he first started working for him back in 2017. 

One ally said Mr Johnson ‘regards Lee as his man on earth’ and his exit from the Government will represent a significant changing of the guard among the PM’s inner circle. 

Mr Cain is a Vote Leave veteran and a staunch loyalist of Mr Cummings, with the latter credited with having masterminded the strategy which propelled the Brexiteer campaign group to an unexpected victory at the 2016 EU referendum.

The former journalist dressed up as the Daily Mirror’s general election chicken and pursued David Cameron on the campaign trail back in 2010. 

But he has recorded an impressive rise since then, establishing himself as one of the biggest beasts in Whitehall.

The 38-year-old, who often sports a heavy morning shadow and likes to relax watching boxing on TV, is a comprehensive school boy from Ormskirk in Merseyside. 

Mr Cain and Mr Johnson first worked together during the Brexit referendum campaign with the former serving as a communications chief while the latter acted as Vote Leave’s public face. 

He has been by Mr Johnson’s side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work for him at the Foreign Office. 

Mr Cain then followed Mr Johnson and continued to work for him when the latter quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018. 

He helped orchestrate Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications.  

Mr Cain is a loyal ally of the PM's top adviser Dominic Cummings. The pair worked together at Vote Leave

 Mr Cain is a loyal ally of the PM’s top adviser Dominic Cummings. The pair worked together at Vote Leave

Mr Cain is a 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

Mr Cain is a 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

Mr Cain’s time in Downing Street has been punctuated by controversies.  

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 programme that has now 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 Number 10 briefing with officials.

Mr Cain is known in Westminster as an ardent Brexiteer and he is viewed as Mr Cummings’ most loyal lieutenant. 

A former Cabinet minister said: ‘Lee is one hundred per cent a creature of Dominic Cummings.’ 

That is one of the main reasons why opponents moved to block his appointment as Mr Johnson’s chief of staff. 

Ministers, Tory MPs and critics feared that if Mr Cain had been elevated to the position it ‘would have been more power for Cummings and more of the chaos of the last year’. 

The prospect of Mr Cain becoming chief of staff prompted outcry in the Tory ranks. 

One Conservative MP responded to the suggestion by telling The Times ‘Cain not able’ while a serving minister said ‘WTF?!’.  

While his departure from the Government is significant, Vote Leave still maintains a significant number of alumni in senior Downing Street roles. 

Channel 4 estimated that of the 14 people who were at the top of Vote Leave, six are still in senior positions inside Number 10. 

Of the 14 people said to have been in the second tier at Vote Leave, a total of nine are in prominent Whitehall positions.

Ben Warner

Mr Warner currently serves as Number 10’s data guru and he is a firm disciple of Mr Cummings. 

He was brought into Vote Leave back in 2016 by Mr Cummings to work as its data expert and is viewed as one of the key players in the successful Brexit campaign.  

The extent to which Mr Warner was thought highly of within Downing Street was illustrated by the fact that he was handed the reins of Mr Johnson’s general election campaign in 2019. 

Ben Warner, pictured alongside Boris Johnson in March this year, currently serves as Number 10's data guru

Ben Warner, pictured alongside Boris Johnson in March this year, currently serves as Number 10’s data guru

He ran the Tories’ private election computer modelling which was critical in informing Mr Johnson’s campaigning efforts and ultimately helped him to secure a  crushing majority at the poll last December. 

Mr Warner then stuck around in Whitehall, serving as Mr Johnson’s data guru, a role which has been key during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The aide has helped Mr Cummings with his so-called ‘mission control’ plan which has seen advisers moved into a Nasa-style communications hub in the Cabinet Office. 

He was dragged into a row back in April after it emerged that he had sat in on a meeting of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) along with Mr Cummings. 

Critics raged that the Number 10 advisers should not have been involved in the meeting but Downing Street insisted it was perfectly normal for non-experts to attend so they could report back to Mr Johnson. 

Oliver Lewis

Another Vote Leave alumnus, Mr Lewis has become a pivotal player in the Downing Street set up, serving as Lord Frost’s deputy on Brexit. 

Mr Lewis currently serves as a Brexit adviser and has been involved in the crunch negotiations between the UK and the EU as the two sides try to hammer out the terms of a trade deal before the end of the transition period. 

He is another member of the so-called ‘Cummings club’ and is known by some in Whitehall as ‘Sonic’. 

Two sources told the BBC that the policy official was considering resigning after Mr Cain’s decision was announced last night but his departure has not been confirmed. 

Michael Gove

While Mr Johnson was the main public face of the Vote Leave campaign, Mr Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, was certainly his deputy. 

The leading Brexiteer was frequently seen on the campaign trail alongside Mr Johnson and was viewed as arguably the group’s most polished communicator. 

His role within the campaign meant reigniting his working relationship with Mr Cummings who had served as his special adviser during the coalition government when Mr Gove was the Education Secretary.  

Oliver Lewis has become a pivotal player in the Downing Street set up, serving as Lord Frost's deputy on Brexit

Oliver Lewis has become a pivotal player in the Downing Street set up, serving as Lord Frost’s deputy on Brexit

Michael Gove, pictured in Whitehall on November 10, worked with Dominic Cummings at the Department for Education

Michael Gove, pictured in Whitehall on November 10, worked with Dominic Cummings at the Department for Education 

Mr Cummings garnered a long list of enemies in Whitehall as he and Mr Gove pushed forward controversial education reforms, with David Cameron memorably describing the aide as a ‘career psychopath’. 

Mr Cummings left his role at the Department for Education in 2014 when Mr Gove was made chief whip in a reshuffle before they then joined forces again in Vote Leave.

During the Brexit campaign Mr Gove worked closely with his ally, as well as with Mr Cain who was pulling the strings while the politicians made the case for leaving the EU in public. 

Carrie’s Crew 

Allegra Stratton

Ms Symonds, the PM’s fiancee, is said to have led the intervention to block Mr Cain’s appointment as Mr Johnson’s chief of staff. 

A friend of the former head of Tory press said Ms Symonds was opposed to the move because ‘she knows he runs the operation in an uncollegiate way where few people can get to him’. 

She was reportedly backed by a handful of prominent women within the Government. 

Among them is believed to have been Ms Stratton who has just started her new job as Mr Johnson’s press secretary. 

The former television journalist is poised to become the face of Downing Street’s televised press briefings which are due to start in the new year. 

She joined Number 10 from the Treasury where she served as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s director of communications. 

Ms Stratton has been widely credited with boosting Mr Sunak’s public profile during the coronavirus crisis and was poached by Mr Johnson. 

Carrie Symonds, a former media chief at CCHQ, is said to have led efforts to block Mr Cain's appointment as chief of staff

Carrie Symonds, a former media chief at CCHQ, is said to have led efforts to block Mr Cain’s appointment as chief of staff

Munira Mirza

Allegra Stratton

Ms Symonds is said to have had Munira Mirza (left), 42, the highly respected and phenomenally bright head of the Downing Street policy uni, on her side. Meanwhile, Allegra Stratton (right), 39, the former journalist poised to become the face of Downing Street’s first televised press briefings was the cause of the power struggle that has erupted

But her arrival at Number 10 has been widely blamed for the power struggle that has erupted. 

She is said to have insisted that she would be answerable to Mr Johnson only and not to Mr Cain. 

That prompted fears that Mr Cain could be side-lined and resulted in the row over whether he would be promoted to chief of staff.

Mr Cain was said to have opposed Ms Stratton’s appointment with reports suggesting they had not spoken since she arrived in her new role a fortnight ago.  

A former minister said the daily televised briefings will mean ‘Allegra will become a household name and would have eclipsed Lee’.

Ms Stratton has experienced a meteoric political rise after leaving journalism to join the Government earlier this year to work with Mr Sunak. 

She left her role as co-presenter of the Peston on Sunday programme on ITV in April 2018 after two years in order to spend more time with her two young children, Vaughn and Xanthe. 

She had reportedly returned to the show just six weeks after the birth of Xanthe in May 2017, initially taking her baby with her to work.  

She also served as national editor at ITV News, the role she left in April this year in order to become Mr Sunak’s top adviser. 

Ms Stratton is married to James Forsyth, The Spectator’s political editor, further strengthening the publication’s links to Number 10, with Mr Cummings married to Mary Wakefield, the magazine’s commissioning editor. 

Munira Mirza  

Ms Mirza serves as Mr Johnson’s policy chief and is widely respected across Whitehall.

The 42-year-old is a long-time aide of the PM dating back to his time as London mayor. 

She prefers to work away from the limelight and the fact her objections to Mr Cain becoming chief of staff became public illustrates the high level of opposition to the appointment. 

The Oldham-born, Oxford-educated academic is a popular figure around Number 10. 

One source said of Ms Mirza: ‘She has a huge brain but wears it lightly. Boris listens to her.’ 

Another source said the reason Ms Mirza was against Mr Cain becoming chief of staff was that ‘she never thought he was up to it’.      

Boris Johnson poached Ms Stratton from her role at the Treasury as Rishi Sunak's director of communications. The PM and Chancellor are pictured today in London

Boris Johnson poached Ms Stratton from her role at the Treasury as Rishi Sunak’s director of communications. The PM and Chancellor are pictured today in London

The Swing Voters

Rishi Sunak 

The Chancellor is not thought to have played any direct role in the recent Downing Street war. 

But his position as Mr Johnson’s right-hand-man, as well as his personal ties to Number 10, mean he is likely to be a key player in what happens next in terms of the direction of the Government. 

Not only is he Ms Stratton’s former boss, but he is also a close family friend of the new press secretary. 

Mr Sunak was a contemporary of her husband, Mr Forsyth, at Winchester College and the Chancellor served as the latter’s best man at his wedding to Ms Stratton.

Mr Sunak and Mr Forsyth are also reportedly god parents to each other’s children. 

Edward Lister 

Lord Udny-Lister has been one of Mr Johnson’s most long-standing political allies. 

He currently serves as the PM’s chief of staff and chief strategic adviser – roles he took when Mr Johnson won the keys to Downing Street in July 2019 – helping Mr Johnson with the broad direction of the Government. 

However, reports today suggested that he will leave his formal roles in January next year but will still advise Mr Johnson from outside the Government. 

The predicted departure of the peer, along with Mr Cain, will rob the premier of two of the key members of his inner circle. 

He is one of a number of senior figures within Number 10 who worked for Mr Johnson when he was the Mayor of London. 

The 71-year-old was Mr Johnson’s chief of staff during his time in City Hall having been part of the capital’s political landscape since 1976 when he was first elected to Wandsworth Council, an authority he led from 1992 to 2011.  

Lord Frost 

The febrile state of Westminster last night was perhaps best illustrated by swirling reports that Lord Frost was considering resigning from the Government. 

He is said to have met with Mr Johnson yesterday evening amid reports that his Brexit deputy Mr Lewis was considering quitting. 

The departure of the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, who also serves as the Government’s national security adviser, would have sent a massive shockwave across Whitehall especially since trade talks with the EU are now entering their final phase.

Lord Frost

Lord Lister

Lord Frost, pictured left, and Lord Lister, pictured right, are two of Mr Johnson’s most important advisers

But sources told Politico this morning that Lord Frost is not quitting, likely prompting a sigh of relief in many quarters.   

Lord Frost, a career diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Denmark and as an adviser to Mr Johnson when he was foreign secretary, has become a key member of the Government since he was appointed the PM’s Europe adviser in July 2019. 

The extent to which he is trusted by Mr Johnson was illustrated in major fashion in June this year when it was announced he was replacing Sir Mark Sedwill as national security adviser while also keeping his Brexit role.            

The 55-year-old was rewarded with a peerage in September, in a move which prompted a cronyism row.     

James Slack

The former journalist is currently the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, a civil service role which means he is politically impartial. 

Mr Slack was previously the political editor at the Daily Mail, a role he left in February 2017 in order to join Whitehall. 

He is one of the Government’s key communicators and holds briefings with political journalists everyday, answering questions on behalf of Mr Johnson. 

There had been speculation that he could leave the role when Theresa May was ousted and Mr Johnson took over in Downing Street in July last year. 

Mr Slack opted to stay on as spokesman and he is now set for a promotion, taking over from Mr Cain as director of communications.      

Andrew Gilligan 

Mr Gilligan has served as the PM’s transport adviser since July 2019 as part of Downing Street’s policy unit. 

The former BBC journalist, who in 2003 claimed on the Today programme that the Blair Government had ‘sexed up’ a report to exaggerate Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, is widely viewed as one of the PM’s most influential advisers. 

His links with Mr Johnson go back a long way, with the PM having once offered him a job at The Spectator when he was the editor. 

Mr Johnson appointed Mr Gilligan to be his Cycling Commissioner in 2013 when he was the mayor of London.  

Mr Gilligan’s appointment as a transport adviser to Mr Johnson raised eyebrows because he is a long-standing critic of the Government’s flagship infrastructure project HS2.      

Ben Gascoigne

Liam Booth-Smith

 Ben Gascoigne, pictured left, currently serves as Mr Johnson’s political secretary while Liam Booth-Smith heads up the joint Number 10 and Number 11 economic team

Ben Gascoigne 

Another long-term aide of Mr Johnson, Mr Gascoigne was a special adviser when he was foreign secretary and worked for him during his tenure as mayor of London. 

Before that he worked for the Conservative Party, including the elections which took Mr Johnson into City Hall and the 2015 general election campaign with saw the Tories achieve an overall majority. 

He currently serves as the PM’s political secretary in Number 10. Last year he became a director of City public relations and marketing firm Grayling UK, working as a policy adviser.

He was employed to further strengthen the company’s senior political counsel and reinforce its reputation as an ‘industry leader’.

He previously worked for elections guru Lynton Crosby’s firm CrosbyTextor as a political consultant.

Liam Booth-Smith 

A former think-tank boss and special adviser to former housing secretary James Brokenshire, Mr Booth-Smith is currently the chief of the Number 10 and Number 11 economic team. 

The new team was set up after Sajid Javid quit as Chancellor at the Cabinet reshuffle in February. The creation of the joint team was widely viewed as a power grab by Number 10 as it looked to exert greater influence over the Treasury. 

The housing expert is in his early thirties and attended Loughborough University where he studied a BA Hons degree in Politics and Social Policy.

After finishing his degree he went on to work at the New Local Government Network as a networks co-coordinator.

After over a year there he spent seven months at City and Guilds before returning and eventually becoming head of communications.

He then held roles as head of research and communications at iMPOWER, before becoming a chief executive at think tank Localis. 

It was after a two-year stint there that he went on to be a special adviser to the housing secretary.  

He has also previously penned columns and articles for national media organisations and had frequently appeared on the Sky News paper review show. 

Jack Doyle

The former journalist joined the Government at the start of this year, taking on the role of the PM’s press secretary.  

It is thought the arrival of Ms Stratton as press secretary, will mean that Mr Doyle will now serve as deputy director of communications.

He joined Downing Street after working at the Daily Mail as Associate Editor (politics). 

His role as press secretary meant he has been the first port of call for political journalists in Westminster during the coronavirus crisis. 

Cleo Watson, pictured with Carrie Symonds ahead of the PM's audience with the Queen in Seotember last year, is another Brexit campaign veteran working in Number 10

Cleo Watson, pictured with Carrie Symonds ahead of the PM’s audience with the Queen in Seotember last year, is another Brexit campaign veteran working in Number 10

Cleo Watson 

Another Brexit campaign veteran who has become a pivotal player at the heart of Downing Street, Ms Watson has developed a strong working relationship with Mr Cummings – they previously worked together on the Vote Leave campaign. 

However, Ms Watson is also close to Ms Symonds and she was pictured accompanying her on a flight to Aberdeen last September when Mr Johnson had a formal audience and dinner with the Queen at Balmoral. 

She is the head of the PM’s priorities and campaigns and has been running a taskforce designed to fast-track new Northern female Tory MPs into key government roles. 

She grew up in Trebinshun House, a 400-year-old mansion in the Brecon Beacons National Park which her parents have now converted into an elite English language school. 

After her time with the Vote Leave campaign, Ms Watson joined Number 10 when Theresa May was Prime Minister. 

Sophia True 

A former staffer at Conservative Party headquarters, Ms True is currently one of the PM’s special advisers. 

She left CCHQ to work as an adviser to Mel Stride when he was briefly made Leader of the House of Commons in the last few months of Theresa May’s government in 2019. 

She then went to work for Nicky Morgan when she was culture secretary and then for Environment Secretary George Eustice before then moving to Number 10.

Number 10’s convenient connections

The Spectator-links

The magazine has strong links to Number 10 with Mr Cummings married to Ms Wakefield, its commissioning editor. 

The couple married in 2011 and have one child together. 

The arrival of Ms Stratton to Downing Street has further bolstered The Spectator’s links to the Government as she is married to political editor Mr Forsyth. 

Mr Forsyth is widely regarded as one of the best connected journalists in Westminster and he is also best friends with Mr Sunak. 

The Chancellor served as his best man at his wedding and they are reportedly god parents to each other’s children.

Kate Bingham, the head of the Government's Vaccine Taskforce, is married to Tory MP Jesse Norman

Kate Bingham, the head of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, is married to Tory MP Jesse Norman

Dido Harding, the boss of NHS Test and Trace, is married to Tory MP and former minister John Penrose

Dido Harding, the boss of NHS Test and Trace, is married to Tory MP and former minister John Penrose

The testing and vaccine tsars with Tory husbands 

The extent to which different parts of the Government are connected by family links has been illustrated by the fact two of Whitehall’s most prominent figures in the coronavirus response are married to Tory MPs.

NHS Test and Trace tsar Dido Harding is married to Conservative MP and former minister John Penrose.

Mr Penrose and Baroness Harding, a Conservative life peer, have been married since 1995 after they met while working together at a management consulting firm. They have two children. 

He currently serves the Government as the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion. 

Baroness Harding, 52, has served as chair of NHS Improvement since 2017 and was put in charge of NHS Test and Trace in May of this year.  

She was previously the CEO of the TalkTalk communications company and sits on the board of the Jockey Club.

Meanwhile, Kate Bingham, the head of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, is married to Tory minister Jesse Norman. 

Mr Norman is currently the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. They got married in 1992 and have three children. 

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