No 10 insider row viewed as turning point for Boris Johnson

Infighting laid bare by Lee Cain’s exit shows Vote Leave camp is clinging on to power

Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain
Lee Cain with Dominic Cummings (left) last year. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA
Lee Cain with Dominic Cummings (left) last year. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA
Brexit correspondent

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 23.37 EST

Brexit is fewer than 50 days away. Many would have expected that come 1 January, when the “oven ready” departure from the EU is finally served up, the influence of the Vote Leave operation within Downing Street would inevitably fade and decline, paving the way for a new era of leadership by Boris Johnson focused on a sovereign and global Britain.

After all, he spoke in February of the “great voyage” the country was embarking upon, warning other countries not to underestimate’s the UK’s determination to make its mark on the world with an “independent voice”.

But the extraordinary infighting in the Downing Street administration that led to the sudden departure of the director of communications on Wednesday night shows the Vote Leave camp is very much clinging on to power.

Johnson’s inner circle is made up of fewer than half a dozen people, most of them more or less on the ardent Brexit side, led by Dominic Cummings but including the Brexit negotiator David Frost and his de facto deputy – and the former head of research at the Vote Leave campaign – Oliver Lewis.

Speculation that Cummings and Frost were going to follow Lee Cain out the door was quickly put to bed, but spoke volumes, according to one highly respected commentator on Brexit. “The briefings were highly significant, suggesting that the Cummings faction owed their loyalty to itself rather than the PM,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the European managing director of the Eurasia Group.

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Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings: two players in the No 10 power struggle

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Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings: two players in the No 10 power struggle

One is the prime minister’s most senior adviser, the other his fiancee. But Dominic Cummings and Carrie Symonds represent opposite ends of the power struggle raging at the heart of No 10, which led to the director of communications, Lee Cain’s extraordinary resignation on Wednesday night. But what do we know about the pair and their lives to date?

Carrie Symonds

Age 32

Education The daughter of one of the founders of the Independent newspaper, Symonds attended Godolphin and Latymer, a private day school in Hammersmith, west London. She gained a first-class degree in theatre studies and history of art at the University of Warwick, according to her LinkedIn page.

Employment In late 2010, she became campaign and marketing director for the then Tory MP for Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith, who is now a peer and serves in Boris Johnson’s government as minister for Pacific and the environment.

In 2012, Symonds worked on Johnson’s successful mayoral re-election campaign, before working for the Conservative party, first as a political press adviser, then head of broadcast. From 2015 she served as a special adviser to the then culture secretary, John Whittingdale, before taking the same role with Sajid Javid, then secretary of state for communities and local government. In the summer of 2017 she became director of communications for the Conservative party, a role she left in late 2018. She has built a reputation as an environmental campaigner.

Relationship with Boris Johnson They became the first unmarried couple to occupy Downing Street when they moved in after Johnson’s 2019 election victory. In February, Symonds announced their engagement on Instagram and that they were expecting a baby. Their son, Wilfred, was born in April, shortly after Johnson overcame Covid-19.

Dominic Cummings

Age 48

Education From the north-east, he is the son of an oil rig project manager and a special needs teacher. Cummings attended a state primary, followed by Durham school, an independent boarding and day school. He achieved a first-class degree in ancient and modern history at Exeter College, Oxford.

Employment A longstanding Eurosceptic, Cummings came to the fore advising Michael Gove, first in opposition and then in government between 2007 and 2013. As Vote Leave campaign director, Cummings helped mastermind victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum. When Johnson became prime minister, he brought Cummings into No 10 as his chief adviser.

Relationship with Johnson The prime minister forged his partnership with Cummings during the Brexit referendum campaign and has been fiercely loyal to his top aide. Johnson used up significant political capital to resist calls to sack Cummings after the Guardian exposed his infamous 260-mile trip to Durham at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Simon Murphy, political correspondent

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“Cummings is staying, for now at least. If he did quit while the EU negotiations are still in play, that would slightly reduce the chances of Johnson adopting a no-trade-deal stance, though insiders say Johnson rather than Cummings is often the most Eurosceptic figure round the table when the issue is discussed,” Rahman added.

His analysis chimes with that of another former Downing Street adviser, who noted that Cain’s promotion to chief of staff would not have changed the composition of the inner circle, merely given him a new job title.

In other words it was the threat of a consolidation of power for the Vote Leave campaign that upended Cain’s career move.

In the short term the row won’t have any impact on Brexit negotiations which are 10 days away from conclusion.

But many have said it is a turning point for Johnson’s leadership and will affect key decisions in the new year on the makeup of his cabinet, economic recovery and the many battles to come over the dividing up of the billions that used to go into the EU’s coffers.

The commentator Daniel Finkelstein told the BBC that in the medium and longer term there will be a point when Johnson will have to ask and answer the question of what kind of prime minister he wants to be. Does he want to be leader of Vote Leave or does he have a different vision of himself as prime minister?

There are also questions of party discipline and leadership, with solid factions emerging including the Northern Research Group led by the MP and Johnson ally Jake Berry and the Covid Research Group led by the Brexiter MP Steve Baker.

Charles Walker, vice-chair of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, told the BBC on Thursday he thought the vacant chief of staff position presented “a real opportunity” for Johnson to appoint someone who could heal the wounds with the parliamentary party.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior member of the 1922 Committee, said Johnson needed someone who could act as a link with the party in parliament.

“I think it is essential for the prime minister to have a chief of staff. Somebody we can get hold of if we really need to,” he told PA Media.

Cummings’ open contempt for MPs has earned him many enemies in the Tory party, but one former cabinet minister who served under Theresa May predicted he would remain at Johnson’s side. He recalled how May “completely fell apart” when her former advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill left.

“Without him Johnson would be nothing,” said the source.