In Depth

Inside the No. 10 power struggle to become Boris Johnson’s chief of staff

Former Vote Leave campaigner Lee Cain is PM’s favourite for top job

Tensions in Boris Johnson’s cabinet are nearing breaking point following reports that the prime minister has picked a pro-Brexit disciple of Dominic Cummings to become Downing Street’s chief of staff.

The surprise appointment of “combative, Vote Leave diehard” Lee Cain to the new post is “going down very badly in some party circles”, The Guardian reports.

“Few, if anyone, in government had tipped Cain” for the role, adds Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham, who says the backlash from senior Tories has been so fierce that “there are serious doubts as to whether the move will happen”.

Who is Cain?

Before taking up various government roles, Cain worked as a reporter for The Sun and the Daily Mirror. While working at the latter, Cain’s duties including dressing up in the newspaper’s famous election chicken costume and heckle Tory politicians, including David Cameron.

Following a brief stint in PR, he then joined the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum under the tutelage of Cummings. 

In the wake of the success of that campaign, Cain became a special adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and briefly served under Theresa May in Downing Street, before moving to the Foreign Office while it was occupied by Johnson.

When Johnson returned to the backbenches after quitting May’s government in 2018, Cain went with him. The former journalist worked on his boss’s Tory leadership campaign, and was rewarded for his successful efforts by being handed the role of No. 10’s head of communications.

Why is he a divisive choice?

The planned promotion of Cain “is part of a wider plan to refocus Downing Street” and “ensure one-to-one access to Johnson is limited to three senior political advisers”, The Times reports. Johnson’s choice “will be taken as a rejection of advice to broaden his circle beyond the pro-Brexit clique”, the paper adds.

The “pugnacious” Cain is also a “controversial figure in Whitehall, having been at loggerheads with many current (and many more former) [special advisers] and ministers over the last year”, says Politico’s Wickham. 

Indeed, The Telegraph’s politics live editor Cat Neilan tweets that the Tories fall into two camps when it comes to Cain - “those who don’t like him, and those who hate him”.

A former minister told The Telegraph that the reported appointment was “pathetic”, adding: “I can’t get beyond him being a bloody chicken, and we all know it was him who ‘leaked’ lockdown.”

Another unnamed Conservative MP said: “The lunatic will have literally taken over the asylum.... he is Dom Cummings’ puppet and Dom Cummings is an advocate for lockdowns.” 

The insider added: “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 No.  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 parliamentary party.”

What happens next?

If Cain officially secures the chief of staff role, “he will have privileged access to the prime minister” and will be “on the same footing” as senior advisers including Cummings, says The Times. 

Some MPs believe Cain’s appointment “could help rein in” Cummings, according to Daily Mail. But others point to the close ties between the two aides.

A Whitehall source told the newspaper that the PM believes Downing Street “desperately needs a chief of staff”, but that his right-hand man “has always said he does not want the title but won’t serve under anyone who has it”.

However, Cummings “would be able to work with Lee, because he knows he is an ally, not a threat”, the source added.

Although Johnson may be able to keep his inner circle onside with the appointment, he may have problems further afield. Politico’s Wickham reports that the PM received messages from “no fewer than nine serving special advisers” last night asking if the emerging reports about Cain’s new role was true, and “expressing their bewilderment”. 

One “even claimed they would resign if it happened, and suggested they would not be alone”, Wickham adds.


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