'What goes around comes around': the intrigues behind Lee Cain's departure

Lee Cain montage
From left: Munira Mirza, Allegra Stratton, Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson, Ben Warner, Lee Cain, Dominic Cummings and David Frost. Composite: Reuters/Jessica Taylor/PA/EPA/Getty Images/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock/Guardian design team
From left: Munira Mirza, Allegra Stratton, Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson, Ben Warner, Lee Cain, Dominic Cummings and David Frost. Composite: Reuters/Jessica Taylor/PA/EPA/Getty Images/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock/Guardian design team

Few saw the resignation of the PM’s communications director coming, but it was long in the making

Dan Sabbagh

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 04.09 EST

It was a resignation that few saw coming, but it had been brewing for months. Dominic Cummings and his ally Lee Cain had been increasingly dominant figures in Downing Street after December’s election win.

But Cummings’ authority had been badly damaged by his lockdown flight to County Durham and, from the late summer, the government lurched from crisis to crisis: A-levels, the rows over the introduction of city and regional Covid restrictions and the surprise imposition of a second nationwide lockdown in England.

Insiders said Johnson appeared to be losing patience with Cummings in meetings, and referred regularly to his chief aide’s lockdown-busting trip. “He was making it clear that he still hadn’t forgotten about it,” one Conservative source said.

A reorganisation of Downing Street was being planned.

The growing number of critics of Cummings in the Conservative party believed he was too stretched. The nominal chief of staff, Eddie Lister, at 71 was increasingly winding down and Cain, the director of communications, was the man that Cummings – who tolerated little authority – was prepared to work with.

Dominic Cummings offers his explanation for his lockdown trip to County Durham in the Downing Street garden in July
Dominic Cummings offers his explanation for his lockdown trip to County Durham in the Downing Street garden in July. Photograph: Ian Hinchliffe/PA

Other changes were in the works. Cain had persuaded Johnson to appoint a spokesperson for television to take journalist briefings every afternoon in the style of the White House, with the hope of seizing the agenda of the early evening news bulletins.

Cain initially alighted on Allegra Stratton, a former Guardian and ITV journalist, who had recently joined the team of high-flying chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

But Cain became less keen on Stratton following focus groups and screen tests, sources said, and hoped instead to appoint the lesser-known BBC journalist Ellie Price.

Johnson, however, wanted Stratton and she was appointed in early October, reporting not to Cain but directly to the prime minister.

Lee Cain pictured after he announced his resignation
Lee Cain pictured after he announced his resignation. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

If that was a defeat for Cain, it may not have mattered. To the spinner’s surprise, the prime minister asked him to become chief of staff about 10 days ago, according to one ally.

Cummings, the same source said, would then be allowed to focus on “the two or three things that mattered to him. He’s very focused on issues like civil service reform and he’s been showing a lot of interest in test and trace. It makes sense to free up your most effective special adviser to focus on key issues, but then your chief guy doesn’t have the bandwidth to look at the rest”.

Except it started to look like the final stages of a Vote Leave takeover of Downing Street. Cummings was well known as the chief strategist in the successful 2016 pro-Brexit campaign. Cain, a former journalist, started his political career there, working as head of broadcast before moving on to work for Boris Johnson.

Some believe news of the move was leaked to the Times on Tuesday night with the intention of killing it. It was presented as a done deal. Yet, extraordinarily, it was not. A last-ditch operation to undo the apparent appointment began, with the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, among those involved.

Symonds is a former special adviser and Conservative party head of press who considers herself a seasoned political operative. Her friends, many of whom are former special advisers, view Cain as being too close to Cummings and part of a regime under which a string of advisers were abruptly kicked out of government. Many were women and close to Symonds. “What goes around comes around,” a former Whitehall insider said.

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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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Concerns were also raised that Cain was too confrontational. He was seen as unwilling to, or too slow to, back down from the row over the provision of free school meals during holidays, which pitted Downing Street against the Manchester United star Marcus Rashford, and encouraged councils, charities, restauranteurs and other organisations to plug the gap until, eventually, the government was forced into a U-turn.

There was no love lost on the other side. Cain had sought to run a disciplined press operation for Johnson dating back to his safety-first leadership campaign, relentlessly checking quotes that appeared in the newspapers and pursuing leaks.

But Symonds, as Johnson’s girlfriend and later fiancee, was able to circumvent Cain, irritating him in July 2019 with the release of a photograph apparently showing the couple making up in the Sussex countryside. It came just days after the Guardian revealed police had been called to her south London flat after an explosive row between Symonds and the prime minister-to-be.

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds on their way to meet veterans on Remembrance Sunday
Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds on their way to meet veterans on Remembrance Sunday. Photograph: Chris Jackson/PA

Perhaps surprisingly given his background as a journalist, Johnson also hates leaks and gossip from Downing Street.

Few dare to speculate or inquire about Symonds’ opinion or intentions, and her own press advisers insist they have nothing to say about Cummings or Cain. Sources at Westminster, however, say she was in touch with a handful of journalists on Wednesday demanding to know how the pushback against the chief of staff appointment was going.

“PM’s fiance, Carrie Symonds, however, said to be deeply unhappy about the plan,” the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, tweeted at lunchtime on Wednesday. Suddenly Cain’s elevation was not as certain as it seemed. It was a cue for others to bombard Johnson and No 10 to try to lobby against the appointment, in effect pressing the prime minister for a fuller reset.

Cain himself was in two minds about taking the job, exhausted after more than two years of intense work for Johnson, from his apparent downfall after he resigned as foreign secretary to his becoming prime minister a year later. But even in the late afternoon allies were convinced he would accept it. “You don’t turn down the prime minister,” one said.

By 9pm, however, after further conversations with Johnson, Cain had chosen to quit. Unusually he felt the need to spell out that he had been “asked to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff” in case anybody had doubted him.

Special advisers who thought they were close to Cain were stunned, believing him to be one of Johnson’s most loyal officials, but the last-ditch revolt had put paid to his appointment. Some say Johnson withdrew the job offer, leaving Cummings deeply unhappy and waiting to see who he may try to appoint next.