When the call from Downing Street came in, I was dozing. I’d fallen asleep the previous night with my black government-issued mobile on my chest, while trying to catch up on the endless emails that are the bane of a special adviser’s life.
A minute or so of pleasantries and then down to business. ‘These leaks about travel corridors, mate. If they carry on, we are going to have to start shooting people.’
I liked the official issuing this unsubtle threat — still do — but was irked by the implication that my department, Transport, was furtively generating unfavourable coverage of the Government’s quarantine strategy for people flying into the UK during the pandemic.
Whatever the objections to quarantine — and it was having a devastating impact on our airlines and airports — it was a settled policy, and we at the Department for Transport (DfT) were duty bound to make it work. So, no leaks, no negative briefing. We stuck to that.
A world utterly dominated by Dominic Cummings, chief policy adviser to the PM, and his ally Lee Cain, the Downing Street director of communications
Something else irritated me — the schoolboy Mafioso language meant to instil fear. Shooting people, for God’s sake. I mean, grow up.
But that exchange was par for the course in the new world I’d joined, a world where bullying and intimidation were the norm. A world utterly dominated by Dominic Cummings, chief policy adviser to the PM, and his ally Lee Cain, the Downing Street director of communications.
And that early-morning call would set in train the events leading to my sacking by Cain.
After 25 years in national newspapers, I’d taken the job of media special adviser — otherwise known as a spad — with some trepidation. Journalism is a tough world, but in most regards it is an uncomplicated one.
I hoped I could spend a stint in government highlighting the good stuff: more investment in road, rail and green technology, particularly in the North, where I hail from. Though not party political, I was fully signed up to the Prime Minister’s vision of ‘building back better’, equipping the UK with infrastructure befitting a great country in the 21st-century.
Their supporters in the Vote Leave faction of Downing Street, the advisers who rose to power on the back of the referendum campaign, are now busy blaming Carrie Symonds (pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019), the PM’s partner and, briefly, a former Tory head of communications, for their demise
I was fortunate in my Secretary of State, Grant Shapps. Enthusiastic and hard-working (our first conversation might be at 6.30am, before the morning TV and radio round, and the last late at night), he was a decent, rational and effective boss. But there are others who enjoy politics purely for the power, the prestige, the drama of it all. And we have seen plenty of drama being played out over the past few days with the fall of Cummings and Cain.
There are those who will say that this is Westminster bubble navel-gazing, an indecent distraction given the twin threats facing this country: Covid-19 and the uncertainty over a Brexit trade deal. But the end of the Cummings-Cain duopoly is important.
It is said that in government ‘advisers advise and ministers decide’. That is important to our democracy because ministers are elected by us and are open to scrutiny in Parliament and the wider world. The power handed to the unelected Cummings and Cain over the past 16 months has been excessive and destabilising, and has cast a malign pall over the heart of government.
Allowing the concentration of this power in a cabal that formed during the campaign to quit the EU has resulted in the infantilisation of Cabinet ministers, who are for ever looking over their shoulders, and the marginalisation of Tory backbenchers, who put Boris Johnson where he is.
‘I was sacked by Cain in September, following an inquiry into a newspaper leak concerning the quarantining of those returning from Spain,’ writes Neil Tweedie (pictured)
There is something else, too — the corrosive effect of a clique who revelled in strong-arm tactics and the use of secret media briefings to force through their agenda.
A government cannot preach morality in public life when it tolerates abuse within its own ranks. The two cannot be separated.
I witnessed this abuse of power first-hand, and it was not pretty. And I have heard from others of their brutal treatment by Cummings and Cain. The Mafia language in that phone call from a Downing Street operative was not an accident. Fear was their tool.
I was sacked by Cain in September, following an inquiry into a newspaper leak concerning the quarantining of those returning from Spain. I had zero involvement in that leak, and protested my innocence to him face to face. So I do not mourn the fact that he has now been ‘whacked’ in true Mafia style. Forget the spin — neither Cain or Cummings jumped. I firmly believe they were pushed, and not before time.
It was as a spad that Cain (pictured on Thursday) earned Johnson’s confidence, standing by him when he resigned as Foreign Secretary and returned to the backbenches to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit policy
Cain was fitted with his concrete boots on Wednesday night after making an abortive bid for the title of chief of staff at No 10. He was the only man Cummings would have tolerated in that role, so protective was he of his own power.
Their supporters in the Vote Leave faction of Downing Street, the advisers who rose to power on the back of the referendum campaign, are now busy blaming Carrie Symonds, the PM’s partner and, briefly, a former Tory head of communications, for their demise.
But it was hubris that consigned Cain and Cummings to the East River. Clever they may have been, but wise they were not.
What I most remember from the three months I spent in government was both the remoteness of this pair and their all-pervasive influence.
I met Cain properly only twice, once to be hired and once to be fired. Cummings I never spoke with, at least not in person. But you could feel their presence in the voices of those who served them.
This was not collegiate government, people working together for a common end, but a court dominated by two over-powerful lieutenants whose decision-making was largely a mystery.
Their supporters in the Vote Leave faction of Downing Street, the advisers who rose to power on the back of the referendum campaign, are now busy blaming Carrie Symonds (pictured in March)
Spads are politically appointed civil servants, paid for by the taxpayer, and while subject to the Civil Service code of conduct, they are the creatures of the governing party. There are about 100 of them spread among the various ministries, with a big contingent located in No 10.
They are sub-divided into policy and media spads and, in the past, were chosen largely by the Secretaries of State they served.
It is the strangest job. Spads work in the shadows, never being quoted publicly, oiling the wheels of government, facilitating back-channel deals between ministers, and briefing journalists on an unattributable basis.
In truth, spads are more powerful than junior ministers and much more so than elected backbenchers.
Both Cummings and Cain had been spads, and they used this network to accrue power. It was made abundantly clear to me when I joined DfT that I served at their pleasure. My loyalty was to them, rather than my Secretary of State.
Cummings had established control of the spad network as a condition of his employment at No 10 — and, being the architect of the Vote Leave campaign and the 2019 election victory, what he asked for he got.
He delighted in his hold over his ‘troops’, ordering them to attend mandatory early-morning meetings, or ones held late on a Friday, during which he’d make clear who was boss. ‘If you leak, you will be marched from your desk by the head of security at your department, your pass will be taken off you and you will be sacked. You have no rights.’
And Dom, supposedly a man who is only interested in ideas of good government (do me a favour) was as good as his word. Sonia Khan, a media spad working for then Chancellor Sajid Javid, was indeed marched out of Downing Street by an armed policeman after Cummings confronted her — an experience that traumatises her to this day.
Cummings threatened resignation over Cain’s departure, but his bluff was called by the PM (pictured leaving Downing Street on Friday)
Only on Thursday, with Cummings seemingly heading for the exit, did the Government quietly settle a legal challenge brought by her.
I attended some of what was known as ‘spad school’ via Zoom (thankfully) because of lockdown.
A click on the video button and there he was, Dominic Cummings, the most powerful unelected man in Britain. He acted like it, too, sitting at the end of the Cabinet Room table, the Union Flag draped behind him.
Here was Kim Il-Cummings, seemingly about to explain to the nation how, regrettably, democracy must be suspended to save the people from themselves.
But instead of the Mao suit, Dom’s attire was pure Weekend Dad. T-shirt or sweatshirt, jeans maybe — studied scruffiness screaming Silicon Valley blue-sky thinking.
Dom liked to start his Zoom conferences with a pithy monologue, during which he disparaged stories written by political journalists — the ‘reptiles’, as he called them. He knew these remarks would leak. How could they not with spads, the world’s biggest gossips, listening in?
This was, of course, Dom’s way of getting his message across without having to face difficult questions. A sensible policy given his less-than-convincing performance during a May press conference in the garden of No 10, where he struggled to justify violating the first lockdown (a draconian policy of house arrest he encouraged) by driving with his family to Barnard Castle in County Durham to ‘test his eyesight’.
Then it was down to business. Dom uncorked his genius, recommending this or that (impossibly tedious) book for (compulsory) bedtime reading, or explaining how he wanted to clear the dead wood from the leadership of public bodies by encouraging people outside the quangocracy to apply for roles (not a bad idea in principle).
The sermon was delivered in a world-weary, educated, North-Eastern monotone, like a bored university lecturer aching for the end of term. And as you listened, you’d think, ‘This guy’s a dilettante, pretending to get things done while exercising his ego’.
Come to think of it, what had he achieved in No 10? Not much, actually, aside from sacking a few senior civil servants — his bugbears since his days as a spad serving Michael Gove in the Department for Education.
Cummings was Gove’s protege. Yet even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not immune from his creation. Only this month, Gove’s home was raided by Cabinet Office investigators searching for evidence of who leaked the details of the current lockdown.
No one was safe from Dom and Lee. And leak inquiries, such as the one I fell victim to, were one of the weapons they deployed.
Of course, No 10 leaked with incontinent regularity, placing stories that would help force through its agenda. It was part of the game — do as I say, not do as I do.
The Vote Leave mob, drunk on their success in the referendum and the election, believed they were untouchable. They revelled in their laddish, iconoclastic, adversarial approach. The country was their plaything. Ever alert to the inadequacies of those they regarded as inferiors, they were at the same time blind to their own glaring inadequacies as communicators and administrators.
Care homes, test and trace, PPE, A-level results, you name it. Debacle has followed debacle but, to them, it was always someone else’s fault.
Day-to-day government is not like campaigning, which is where Cummings and Cain established their reputations. An airborne virus does not give a fig for slogans or promises about moonshots. Cain was less visible than Cummings, and news of his sacking has been met with indifference by most. But he wielded enormous power, not least when most of Downing Street was laid low by Covid.
A former red-top journalist (who famously dressed up as a chicken (pictured in 2010) to stalk David Cameron during an election campaign on behalf of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror), his big break into political media relations came when he landed a job with Vote Leave
A former red-top journalist (who famously dressed up as a chicken to stalk David Cameron during an election campaign on behalf of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror), his big break into political media relations came when he landed a job with Vote Leave.
It was as a spad that Cain earned Johnson’s confidence, standing by him when he resigned as Foreign Secretary and returned to the backbenches to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit policy.
Johnson may regret the loss of this loyal lieutenant, but business is business. Cain made too many enemies. But his principle error was thinking he could do anything he wanted and, in my case, he did — sacking me for something he knew I had not done.
The charge against me was nonsense, a fact Grant Shapps made clear to Cain. We at DfT were aware of the likely identity of the leaker of the story, and Cain even mentioned him as a suspect in our final meeting. In my letter of dismissal, the Cabinet Office stated that, regarding the unauthorised disclosure of sensitive information, ‘no finding attributing responsibility to you has been made’.
It did no good. Summoned to his expansive, wood-panelled office in No 10, I was told that I behaved suspiciously by deleting numbers from the call log of my private phone (which I’d offered to the leak inquiry to examine, despite no legal obligation to do so).
When I explained that I cleared old calls so only ones needing to be dealt with stood out, he replied: ‘As a spad, you should never delete calls from your private phone, don’t you know that?’ I replied ‘No.’ But I told him in no uncertain terms I had never briefed against the Government. His response? ‘You have fired yourself.’
I glanced over at the framed front page of the Daily Mirror hanging on his wall. ‘Boris Hires Mirror Chicken As Adviser’ proclaimed the headline. My God, was I really being fired by a man who’d dressed as a chicken? It was the only thing that made me chuckle that day.
Now, Cain has in effect fired himself, too. He over-reached himself and was sent packing by a coalition of his many enemies.
Cummings threatened resignation over Cain’s departure, but his bluff was called by the PM. Last night, they cleared their desks and left No 10. Their power is broken and cannot — should not — be rebuilt.
This Scorsesian drama has implications far beyond Westminster. It represents a crossroads in the journey of this young but battle-scarred administration. Hopefully, Johnson will use it to reboot the No 10 operation, ushering in an era of more conciliatory, consensual government, according due respect to ministers and MPs who may sometimes differ in their opinions.
As for Cummings, well, he loves books, and Anna Karenina is a favourite. ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,’ wrote Tolstoy. Dom, described as a genius, will now have more time to reflect on the fact that truly great men never believe their own publicity.