Who are the warring factions in No. 10 - and can Johnson make them down arms?
Downing Street descends into infighting as PM plots pandemic course
The departure of Dominic Cummings was supposed to help bring harmony to a No. 10 weakened by divisions and infighting. But just months after the controversial aide headed for the exit, the fragile truce appears to be crumbling.
The past weekend brought the outbreak of “briefing wars that almost made you miss the old Vote Leave days”, says Politico’s London Playbook.
A distinct lack of unity between the team tasked by Boris Johnson with saving the union with Scotland, and allegations of power-brokering by his fiancee Carrie Symonds, are the latest headaches facing the prime minister. And as he tries to plot a route out of the ongoing Covid lockdown and a recovery plan for the UK’s economy, the germs of discontent appear to be spreading at Downing Street.
Power behind the throne
The latest squirmish saw Oliver Lewis quit his new role as head of Johnson’s team in charge of saving the union, “telling friends his position was ‘untenable’ after Johnson angrily accused him of briefing against Michael Gove”, reports The Sunday Times’ political editor Tim Shipman.
Lewis’s departure came days after Johnson made former Brexit negotiator David Frost a cabinet minister, setting off a maelstrom of contradictory briefings from sources who said either that Gove have recommended the appointment - or was furious about losing influence in No. 10.
Lewis’s former Vote Leave allies claim the PM pointed the finger of blame at him “at the behest of his fiancee”, according to Shipman, and note that two of Symonds’ “closest friends”, Baroness Finn and Henry Newman, have also been “handed plum roles in No. 10”.
Symonds, a former director of communication for the Tory Party, has long been accused of over-exercising her influence on Johnson. Following the claim that she was linked to Lewis’s resignation, Nic Conner, who worked with Symonds on the Brexit campaign, told the Daily Mail that her position is “damaging to democracy”.
Symonds is “unelected and unaccountable”, Conner said, yet “it is clear that Carrie is acting as more than just the prime minister’s private confidante. If reports are true, which I believe they are, then her role in government is similar to that of the chief of staff.”
The allegations have triggered a call from the Bow Group, an influential Conservative think tank, to launch an inquiry into Symonds’ “possible influence” in government.
The group’s chair, Ben Harris-Quinney, said: “She has not been elected, she has not been appointed, she holds no legal or constitutional powers to make decisions relating to who should hold government posts, to be party to privileged information, or to set the policy direction of the country.”
Warning that failing to clarify her position “potentially has huge hazards for the government, the Conservative Party, and the nation”, he added: “The public take a very dim view of cronyism, democracy in Britain is and must always be sacred, and no one should be involved in running our country without accountability to the people.”
The Bow Group “boasts veteran MPs Bill Cash and John Redwood as patrons”, says The Sunday Times’ Shipman, who quotes backbench MPs welcoming the think tank’s demand for an inquiry.
“People don’t want to put their head above the parapet,” said an unnamed Tory. “But the sentiment is widely shared among MPs.”
Another Tory added: “The problem is that the country is being run from the upstairs flat.”
Cummings - whose departure was supposed to put an end to Downing Street’s briefing war - was “the most prominent casualty of Symonds’ alleged influence”, says the Daily Mail.
He was followed out of the door by communications chief Lee Cain, amid “claims that Symonds was calling the PM 20 times a day, and had been nicknamed ‘Princess Nut Nut’ by her detractors”, the paper continues.
Symonds’ enemies are continuing to put out “stories designed to wound her”, adds Shipman - which may go some way to explaining the Daily Star’s splash this morning detailing how her dog, Dilyn, would ritually “hump” Cummings’ leg.
Her defenders have moved to play down the suggestion that she is a malign influence, telling Shipman that “attacks on Carrie are not only sexist but they suggest that Boris is some sort of idiot who can’t work out what is good for him for himself”.
Conservative MP Laura Trott told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that Symonds is “an incredibly talented and able person, and I think there should be some consideration given about whether some of these things would be said about a man”.
Samantha Cameron, wife of ex-prime minister David, has also defended Johnson’s other half, telling BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last month that “I think that it is very unfair to pick her out as having some kind of undue influence”.
Storm in a teacup
“All this can seem like a pointless soap opera,” writes Shipman. But “it matters”, because the PM’s announcement today about his plan for ending lockdown is “supposed to be the crossroads after which Johnson maps out the future of the country”.
“Yet on Brexit, the Union and other plans, the team supposed to deliver now appears in turmoil,” Shipman continues.
The Daily Mail says that in place of the divide between Cummings’ Vote Leave fraternity and Johnson’s other aides, “a new group has grown in Downing Street consisting of allies of Miss Symonds and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove”.
Johnson is known to surround himself with a trusted set of lieutenants, keeping on board some of the same advisors who served under him during his tenure as mayor of London. And that means the winners in the next Downing Street split could have a major say in the UK’s future for some time to come.