In Depth

Has Vote Leave lost control of Downing Street - and is it curtains for Dominic Cummings?

Prime minister’s right-hand man hit by departure of close ally as No. 10 infighting intensifies

Boris Johnson’s closest adviser is considering quitting Downing Street position following the resignation last night of director of communications Lee Cain, according to insiders.

Dominic Cummings is said to be “furious that Cain, a fellow Vote Leave campaigner who was partly credited with bringing him into No 10, had in effect been forced out”, The Guardian reports.

Cain’s decision to step down -  announced as the UK became the first European country to pass 50,000 Covid deaths, and as Johnson’s Brexit deadline looms - has laid bare “internal turmoil and dysfunction” at the heart of the prime minister’s top team, the paper adds.

Cain and unstable

The row that triggered Cain’s sudden departure stems from the new chief of staff role that Johnson is introducing to shore up his Downing Street operation.

Behind the scenes, relations between Johnson, Cummings, Cain and No. 10 aides have become “fractious to the point of total breakdown” in recent weeks, writes Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham. And after an “astonishing day of bitter and public infighting at the top of government”, matters came to a head yesterday.

Tensions had been rising since Cain masterminded the plan for Downing Street to introduce US-style TV briefings. Wickham says that while Johnson embraced the concept, Cain had pushed for the briefings to be fronted by a “less prominent face” than Allegra Stratton, who took up the post in early October. Her appointment reportedly left Cain worried that he would be “sidelined”, leading him to offer his resignation to Johnson last week.

However, the PM “wanted to keep” both Cain and Stratton, The Times reports. With Johnson still on the lookout for a chief of staff, reports emerged this week that Cain was to be promoted to the role, “in a move that would have entrenched the influence of the Vote Leave faction in Downing Street”.

Allies of Cain told the newspaper that he had been acting as “de facto” chief of staff for some time - but the alleged plan to formalise the arrangement caused dismay among many Tory MPs.

And after Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds - a former head of communications for the Conservative Party - also voiced concerns that he was “not getting good advice”, the plan appears to have been abandoned. 

But by then, the damage was done. Times Radio’s chief political commentator, Tom Newton Dunn, last night tweeted that Cain gave his boss an ultimatum: “If you sideline me, you lose me.” 

The gamble did not pay off, leading Cain to quit.

So why does it all matter?

With both the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit negotiations dragging on, some commentators have dismissed Cain’s departure as just another tale of palace intrigue. But as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg writes, it is “much more than a random resignation”.

“This is about who is running the country,” she adds. “It’s not just about whether a man, who you probably haven't heard of, has fallen out with a politician.”

Discontent has been simmering in Downing Street for some time, amid growing fears among Tory MPs that Johnson is too beholden to his advisers, and growing frustration among No. 10 aides about the “macho boys club” led by Cummings, says Politico’s Wickham.

Cain’s departure has exposed this lack of unity to the world, with the “anger about what has unfolded shared by key advisers” including Cummings and chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, the BBC’s Kuenssberg reports.

The timing of this latest row is potentially disastrous, according to critics who have repeatedly argued that internal tensions “have hindered the country’s efforts to get on top of the [Covid] pandemic”, adds The Guardian.

Labour leader Keir Starmer told LBC Radio this morning that the infighting was “pathetic”, adding: “Millions of people will be waking up this morning, scratching their heads, saying what on Earth is going on?”

And Starmer may well be right, with Cain’s public profile still far lower than that of his Vote Leave ally Cummings

Yet the wider issue is that his departure does not reveal a “a government united in trying to confront a pandemic”, but rather a “rival group vying for influence over the prime minister himself”, Kuenssberg warns.

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