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Mutiny in Number 10: What is going on in Boris Johnson's government and why does it matter?

The Vote Leave staffer is leaving Downing Street at the end of the year.

britain-politics Ian Cain. Source: Frank Augstein

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson has lost his chief spin doctor after a power struggle in Downing Street ended in his resignation.

Lee Cain is leaving his Downing Street role as director of communications after other staff pushed back against his appointment to the role of chief of staff.

Here are some of the key points about the turmoil in Number 10.

What has happened?

Lee Cain is a former Vote Leave staffer and close associate of the controversial Brexit spin doctor Dominic Cummings.

He and Cummings campaigned against Theresa May’s leadership of the Tories, and joined Johnson’s government when he took over in July 2019. 

It emerged last night that he would be quitting as No 10’s director of communications, although he will remain in post until the end of the year. 

He had been offered a promotion to become the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, but a leak of that news prompted a backlash within the Tory ranks – reportedly including Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds – which effectively forced Cain out.

virus-outbreak-britain-remembrance Source: Chris Jackson via PA Images

The chief-of-staff role would have put Cain in charge of the day-to-day operations at Downing Street and made him one of just a handful of people with direct one-to-one access with the Prime Minister.

Disliked by many on the Tory backbenches for his pugnacious style and much-criticised communications strategy during the pandemic, he said yesterday that he would leave his role by the end of the year.

He said he had decided to resign after “careful consideration”, while Johnson thanked him for his “extraordinary service”.

Lee Cain started his career in local news before entering the world of tabloid journalism, where he memorably dressed up as a chicken to torment then Conservative leader David Cameron while at the Daily Mirror.

general-election-2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sitting with his Director of Communications, Lee Cain, in his campaign bus, 2019. Source: PA Images

Does this matter?

In Westminster there are always rumours of rifts and rows and speculation about who is on the way up and who is going down.

But this is all playing out at a time when the UK is in the grip of coronavirus, with the official death toll passing 50,000 and the true figure far higher.

The British public might reasonably expect that at this moment of crisis those involved in running the country should be more focused on that than internal squabbling.

From an Irish perspective, the weakened position of the Vote Leave contingent within Number 10 could make it easier for Johnson to compromise in the post-Brexit trade negotiations – although he has repeatedly insisted he is prepared to walk away without a deal.

Why is Lee Cain controversial?

Along with Dominic Cummings, Cain was one of the key players in the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit who were brought into government by the Prime Minister.

He fought a divisive battle with the press which culminated in a walkout by senior members of the lobby – the reporters covering Westminster – after journalists from some outlets were banned from a briefing on UK-EU trade talks.

The coronavirus crisis has also seen a series of communications missteps, with information affecting the lives of millions of people leaked out or selectively briefed before being formally announced.

What about Cummings?

Cummings was reportedly considering his position after Cain quit, but it appears he will remain in Number 10.

The position of Lord Frost, the Prime Minister’s Europe adviser, was also reported to be uncertain, although he too appears to be staying – but the fact there was speculation about it at a time when post-Brexit trade talks are at crisis point is another alarming sign that all is not well in Downing Street.

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And other No 10 figures?

2.56587923 Allegra Stratton. Source: PA Images

One of the triggers for the turmoil has been the appointment of Allegra Stratton to front the televised news conferences that Number 10 is planning.

A former broadcast journalist, Stratton became Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s communications chief in April.

But she was swiftly poached by the Prime Minister to be the face of Downing Street in planned US-style televised press briefings. Cain reportedly opposed her appointment, and he took it as a blow to his authority.

Long-simmering tensions in No 10 began boiling over; Stratton is thought to have wanted direct access to the Prime Minister rather than reporting to Cain in order to do her job more effectively.

Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée and a former communications director for the Conservative Party, is described as “an ally” of Stratton. It’s reported that she has clashed with Cain in the past. 

There is no fixed date yet for the start of those briefings, but Johnson hopes they will help improve the Government’s public image.

James Slack, a former Daily Mail journalist who serves as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman and is a member of the permanent Civil Service, is expected to succeed Cain as director of communications.

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