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Sun, 29 November 2020

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Here’s Everything Westminster Insiders Are Saying About The Number 10 Chief Of Staff Drama

Here’s Everything Westminster Insiders Are Saying About The Number 10 Chief Of Staff Drama
6 min read

Since it was reported last night that one of Boris Johnson’s closest allies was being tipped to be his new chief of staff, Westminster has been buzzing with briefings, counter-briefings, snipes and slapdowns, but the central theme is that nobody really knows what's going on.

So - here are all the takes on the Lee Cain drama:

It began with the political editors of The Times and The Daily Mail, Francis Elliott and Jason Groves, filing stories last night that said Cain, currently Downing Street’s director of communications, was the frontrunner to take the vacant role at the heart of government.

The move was said to place the former journalist, special adviser and veteran of the Vote Leave campaign alongside senior aide Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case as the only people with access to the Prime Minister.

Ostensibly an attempt to simplify and reorganise the Number 10 operation, it has instead massively complicated matters and sparked a war of words that shows no sign of abating.

A Done Deal?

The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg responded to the news last night, saying that it is "definitely the case that conversations have been had” and despite a “bumpy" few months the PM was eager to keep Cain, who is “one of a tiny inner circle”, but it was “not a done deal”.

This morning Alex Wickham at Politico wrote “there are serious doubts as to whether the move will happen”, saying MPs and special advisers were extremely unhappy at the prospect, quoting one claiming “they would resign if it happened, and suggested they would not be alone”.

But a former ministerial adviser told PoliticsHome: “No Spad will quit, there isn't a chance on Earth. Can you imagine being the idiot that goes 'yeah, I'm quitting because you're making this person chief of staff at Number 10'. 

“And then where are you going to go? A public affairs agency? Oh right, who are you going to talk to, because you've just told the chief of staff at Number 10 that you hate them.”

Bouncing Boris Into A Decision?

Wickham also reported “two serving SpAds suggested that the Vote Leave faction in Number 10 was trying to ‘bounce' Johnson into promoting Cain in order to bolster their internal influence”.

But speaking to PolHome another former adviser said it could just as easily be true that it was leaked by someone who didn’t want Mr Cain to get the job, given the anger the news has caused among MPs.

Numerous sources have suggested the PM’s fiancee Carrie Symonds is unhappy about Cain being chief of staff, and James Tapsfield at MailOnline said there are even “rumours that she was behind news emerging of the behind-closed doors discussions”. 

One former Tory adviser told him: "It's the blonde assassin versus the skinhead scouser.”

It was echoed by The Times’ Steven Swinford, who said “two senior Conservative sources confirmed that Ms Symonds is opposing the appointment”.

A former SpAd told PolHome “the stuff about Carrie hating Lee is totally true”, suggesting the animosity came from a suspicion he'd leaked stories about her and Mr Johnson when he was his adviser in the Foreign Office, and adding to the voices who claim she'd tried to stop him being given a job in Number 10 in the first place.

They added: “But the fact is Boris didn't listen to her and took Lee in and made him director of comms, so I think her influence over this sort of thing is probably not as great as people would like it to be. 

“I think it misses the point, the bigger issue is the way the MPs are responding to it.”

The Cummings Factor

Speaking of which, The Telegraph’s Cat Neilan and Tony Diver have quoted a Tory MP as saying: "The lunatic will have literally taken over the asylum.... he is Dom Cummings' puppet and Dom Cummings is an advocate for lockdowns. If this is true and comes to pass, it will be the final nail for the PM. 

"I don't think he realises how concerned the parliamentary party is about the Number 10 operation and at the heart of that is Cummings and Cain. 

“It is just clear the PM does not understand or appreciate the trouble he is in with the parliamentary party. Lee Cain’s appointment makes Rishi’s trajectory even quicker."

But they also spoke to a former adviser who said Number 10 would be unrepentant in the face of Tory outrage: "This government gave up on optics when Cummings told the country to go f*** itself.”

A former Spad echoed this in comments to PolHome, saying: “Several ministers have messaged me saying 'what the f*** is going on'. Well, this is what was always going to happen, because they're in charge, and they appoint the people they want to be in the roles, and you shouldn't be surprised.”

Leaks And A Resignation Rumour

Back at the BBC Kuenssberg wrote a piece suggesting the story may have been put out because “Mr Cain was the source of the leak of the government's decision to lock down again", something Number 10 - which is still in the middle of an inquiry into the matter - have strongly denied.

She also said that Allegra Stratton, the former ITV journalist drafted in to be the PM’s spokesman at the new televised press briefings, was unhappy about Cain’s potential appointment, as is the PM’s influential policy adviser Munira Mirza.

But TimesRadio’s Tom Newton Dunn offered a different version of events, tweeting: “I understand that Lee Cain…tendered his resignation last week. Argued that he would be sidelined by the appointment of a new Chief of Staff and new on-air spokeswoman Allegra Stratton.

“Cain told his staff he was going, and didn't return to Number 10 for several days. One source tells me it amounted to an ultimatum from Cain to the PM - if you sideline me, you lose me. 

“This is what sparked the conversation between them about Cain taking the Chief of Staff role.”

He added: “Number 10 sources say Cain hasn't resigned and just took a few days off, but they do not deny he offered his resignation.”

The Guardian's Jess Elgot tweeted that a government source joking: "I think it was a few days off, more a 'circuit break' if you like..."

One of the most eye-catching takes appeared in The Times, who quoted a senior Tory as saying: “Clearly he’s been fired as comms director after a series of catastrophic unforced errors and like all good civil servants been promoted out by being given a grand title and a non-job.”

A spokesperson said: "I'm not going to comment on the speculation today about personnel matters in Number 10 I'm afraid."

A spokesperson for Ms Symonds also declined to comment, and there has been no word from Mr Cain, or Ms Stratton, Mr Cummings or anybody else in Number 10 for that matter, so for now it remains unclear whether he will get the job or not, or if anybody will.

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