How Cummings and Carrie Symonds vie for Johnson's attention

No 10 infighting reveals divergence of cultures, style and politics between PM’s top aide and fiancee

Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings
Carrie Symonds is said to be baffled by Dominic Cummings’ obsession with reforming the civil service. Composite: Victoria Jones/PA/Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock
Carrie Symonds is said to be baffled by Dominic Cummings’ obsession with reforming the civil service. Composite: Victoria Jones/PA/Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 12.41 EST

The imminent departure of Downing Street’s head of communications, Lee Cain, has uncovered a clash of cultures, styles and politics, pitting two unelected officials vying for Boris Johnson’s attention against one another.

In one corner is Dominic Cummings, the pugnacious chief adviser to the prime minister, seen by Tory MPs as the leader of a group of predominantly Vote Leave veterans who have dominated key positions within No 10 since December’s election. Under him, a macho culture is said to have developed.

In the other corner is Carrie Symonds, the former Conservative party press officer, Johnson’s fiancee and mother to his newest son, Wilfred, whose rising influence has variously shocked and delighted many in the parliamentary party.

The clash means Johnson and his party could move away from the confrontational style favoured by Cummings and Cain. For the Vote Leave faction, including Cummings, it means they may lose their grip on government.

Allies of Cummings who are believed to have considered their positions include Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit negotiator who is said to be close to Cain, and Oliver Lewis, an adviser nicknamed Sonic.

Briefings have claimed that some loyal allies could yet leave the prime minister and government for good unless they are allowed to maintain their handle on the policy levers.

Several sources said Symonds was pivotal in ensuring that Cain, a state-educated journalist who once dressed as a chicken for the Daily Mirror to pursue David Cameron, did not get the job as Johnson’s chief of staff.

A former special adviser and head of media in the Conservative party, Symonds has previously voiced concerns about the combative culture of No 10 under Cummings and Cain.

Some claim she has grown increasingly concerned by reports of a macho culture which has sidelined female special advisers. She is also said to be baffled by Cummings’ obsession with reforming the mechanisms of government and the civil service.

Her supporters among MPs say that, unlike Cummings, she has wanted to pull the parliamentary party closer to No 10. Some MPs have grown increasingly angry at Downing Street’s dismissals of their concerns over lockdown, the failings of test and trace and the levelling-up agenda.

One said: “Who would have thought that Carrie Symonds would be the one to pull the plug on the failings of Cummings, Cain and co,” adding: “Chapeau.”

Cummings, who became a household name after the Guardian disclosed that he had travelled to the north of England with suspected Covid-19 and driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, had pushed for his ally, Cain, to be promoted to chief of staff.

Reports claimed that Symonds then warned that it would be “a mistake” following a series of communications errors by the government during the pandemic.

She was backed by Munira Mirza, a Johnson aide from his time as London mayor. A former member of the Revolutionary Communist party, she was said by the Times to have made her opposition to Cain’s appointment clear.

Symonds’s opposition to Cain was also said to be backed by the incoming press secretary Allegra Stratton, the former ITN, Newsnight and Guardian journalist who will front daily televised briefings as press secretary.

When recruited earlier this year, Stratton reportedly insisted that she would be answerable to the prime minister, not Cain.

Sir Lynton Crosby, the pollster and campaigner who oversaw Johnson’s mayoral victories in London, was also said to have told the prime minister to think again.

One Conservative backbencher said Symonds could lead what amounted to an alternative power base within Westminster, lined up against Michael Gove and Cummings and allied to Stratton, who – against the wishes of Cain – is to become the face of the government’s new briefings. “Carrie is very much pushing on this,” they said.

A passionate conservationist who is close to Zac Goldsmith, she could push the government towards offering more support for environment-friendly policies. She has already had an impact on government policy after a badger cull in Derbyshire was called off, a move that saved thousands of the animals.

As a result of the clash and its subsequent fallout, the government has been left floundering amid a rising death rate from coronavirus and with a Brexit deadline looming without a deal. Leading Tory backbenchers said there had been growing concerns about the Downing Street operation.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told the BBC: “I think there has been unhappiness about the No 10 operation for some time. Members of parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process, and that’s no secret.

“The real opportunity here is for the chief of staff position to be filled by someone who has good links with the Conservative party and its representation in the House of Commons.”

Some who know Cummings believe he will stay on, determined to see the Brexit process through by the end of the year. But they make clear that “he will walk” if he doesn’t like who Johnson appoints as chief of staff, particularly if it means restricting his influence.

Observers say that since the general election, Cummings has gradually moved away from an interest in the press operation and is now concentrating on test and trace schemes, Brexit and reforming procurement.

It remains to be seen who will win the battle between his allies and influence, and that of the prime minister’s partner.