Sat, 24 February 2024

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This Is Why The Battle For Control In Number 10 Has Left Boris Johnson More Isolated Than Ever Before

5 min read

It was supposed to be a No 10 restructure that brought stability and – crucially – a better link between Tory MPs and their leader.

Yet within hours the Prime Minister’s plan to promote his director of communications Lee Cain to chief of staff had unraveled. It led to his sensational resignation from government, after three years of loyal service. 

The almighty row engulfing No 10 has left Johnson at the head of a chaotic Downing Street operation, weeks out from Brexit with no deal struck with the EU, and in the midst of the second wave of the coronavirus.

Those familiar with events have told PoliticsHome that there had been huge pressure on Johnson to find a chief of staff to try to remedy the significant breakdown in communications and ill-feeling between MPs and the Prime Minister.

U-turns, mini-rebellions, outspoken backbenchers on a myriad subjects are not the norm for someone with an 80 seat majority.

“The party was saying you need to appoint a chief of staff, there needs to be clear lines of who is in control. 

“A lot of MPs are really, really annoyed. The Parliamentary Private Secretaries they’ve hired are young and inexperienced. Loads of MPs feel they are never consulted.

“The lack of someone who is chief of staff or in that role is the root of so many problems.

“You cannot underestimate how bad relations are,” a Westminster source said. 

Figures like Ben Gascoigne, Johnson’s political secretary, are reportedly “run ragged” with their workload, staffers in Number 10 are exhausted working on the response to the pandemic – and Cain was already operating with some chief of staff responsibilities anyway.   

Cain, a Vote Leave veteran, has been with the Prime Minister for three years – including as an adviser when he was Foreign Secretary. He was Johnson’s first choice for chief of staff. It would have been a flattering promotion. 

It also solved a serious issue between Cain and Allegra Stratton, the former ITV national editor and director of communications for Rishi Sunak hired to front the televised afternoon press conferences as a new press secretary. She is not thought to have been Cain’s choice, and there was further tension when it was rumored she would not report into him, but directly to Johnson. Cain felt sidelined. 

“In the bunker” there’s still the feeling “we were Vote Leave” and Stratton did not represent that, which put her at odds with Cain, the source explained.  

Ultimately he threatened to leave, and the chief of staff job was touted as a prize. Johnson likes Cain and respects the fact he stuck with him from the early days of the Vote Leave campaign. 

However - after news that he had the job in the bag leaked to The Times (which many believe was an attempt to bounce Johnson into handing the role to him), trust in Downing Street nosedived and a backlash over his potential promotion erupted from all sides.

Some MPs were livid that he was being touted for the job, and didn’t see him as a unifying figure or the person through whom their political disputes should be channeled.

The reaction from spads was mixed. Some thought “Cano,” as he’s known, would have been a great chief of staff. They liked his style and the atmosphere he created. Others found him brash.

One damning observation was that his style could at times be a bit “14 year old boys in a rugby changing room”. 

With chief strategist Dominic Cummings and senior adviser Sir Eddie Lister wielding significant influence, there was also reference to Cain’s position humiliatingly being referred to as COSINO – chief of staff in name only.

Then there was the prime minister’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, the former Tory party head of communications and reportedly a long-standing critic of Cain's, who was also thoroughly against his promotion. She was also someone really pushing for Stratton to rise up the ranks within No 10, taking the view she was nothing but good news for the operation. 

“It’s a victory for Carrie, without a shadow of a doubt,” the source said. 

Cain would have been “bad cop” to Symonds, managing Johnson, making decisions over his time and his political approach, and ultimately impacting on their small family unit. Symonds also worked as a spad and is not short of an opinion on how things should be done.

It culminated in a crunch meeting on Wednesday night, at which it's reported that Cain issued Johnson with an ultimatum – give me the job or lose me. Johnson chose the latter option.

Speculation has mounted that Cummings, the chief strategist, who the Prime Minister had expended so much political capital trying to save over his decision to travel to Barnard Castle during lockdown, is soon to follow Cain and quit Downing Street. 

Two of his three priorities of getting Brexit done and getting a majority, align with Johnson. But his severe dislike of the civil service and radical plans to drastically overhaul it are less in the PM’s ballpark, according to observers. 

Cummings could walk over the feeling that there has been a marginalisation of Vote Leave within Number 10, despite all of the work to secure a Johnson government.

But those close to events say it is unlikely, suggesting Cummings is not part of this particular equation. 

This is purely a Cain, Symonds and Stratton dynamic.

With the departure of Cain by the end of the year, Johnson will have lost someone who genuinely would have walked over hot coals for him and was his biggest cheerleader. The kind of unfailing loyalty he last experienced with Alice Robinson, his former parliamentary office manager, and which he is finding harder and harder to come by – despite that astonishing election win. 

This morning Johnson, despite all the effort to fix the gaps in his team, may find himself in a far lonelier place.

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