Departure of Boris Johnson’s aide Lee Cain exposes the cracks in prime minister’s top team

Let’s face it. Government by unelected and unaccountable SPADs has been a costly failure (and a delicious PR disaster). Time for Dominic Cummings to spend more time with his family in Durham? Lockdown would be a good time to make the journey. – Owl

Steven Swinford, Deputy Political Editor | Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | Eleni Courea, Political Reporter 

Even by the tumultuous standards of Boris Johnson’s government the rise and fall of his trusted aide Lee Cain has shaken those around the prime minister.

On Tuesday Mr Cain was Mr Johnson’s presumptive new chief of staff, having loyally served him long before he entered Downing Street. But by last night he was gone — losing not only the job he wanted but also resigning from his present role as the prime minister’s director of communications.

His departure, and the events that led up to it, reveal a fractured top team around Mr Johnson that has pitted his Brexit allies against the prime minister’s own fiancée in a battle over what kind of prime minister he should be.

It is a row that has engulfed the highest levels of No 10 and could prove to be a decisive moment for the direction of the government.

The enmity between Mr Cain and Carrie Symonds, herself a former director of communications for the Conservative Party, has long been simmering under the surface but became public yesterday after The Times disclosed Mr Johnson’s intention to promote Mr Cain to a new role.

If he had got the job the appointment would have cemented the influence of Downing Street’s Vote Leave faction around the prime minister, Mr Cain having worked for Dominic Cummings during the EU referendum campaign.

Yesterday, until his resignation, allies of Mr Cain had been insisting that he was the right man for the role, having been acting as the prime minister’s de facto chief of staff for some time.

“His instincts and the prime minister’s instincts are the same,” one government source said. “They have a tight bond. The point of a chief of staff is that they can provide direction and clarity on behalf of the prime minister. Lee can do that.”

Ms Symonds, however, believed that elevating Mr Cain would be damaging.

“She knows he runs the operation in an uncollegiate way where few people can get to him,” one friend said. “There’s not a diversity of opinion, he is not getting good advice. His top advisers are running him into the ground.”

Mr Cain’s potential promotion was always a bit tenuous. Last week he is understood to have tendered his resignation amid suggestions that he risked being marginalised by Allegra Stratton, who was chosen by the prime minister to front daily press briefings.

Ms Stratton has extensive broadcasting experience and previously worked for Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as his director of communications.

Mr Cain is said to have objected to her appointment. “She was not his first choice, it was very much the prime minister’s call,” a Downing Street source said. “It has not gone well.”

According to Downing Street sources, the pair had not spoken since Ms Stratton moved to No 10 a fortnight ago. “Allegra has made no secret of the fact she wants to do things differently,” one No 10 staffer said.

“You had someone [in Boris] who was the most popular politician in the country who is now one of the least popular. She wants No 10 to be much more open, to take people with it. Both the party and the country.”

Mr Johnson, however, wanted to keep both Mr Cain and Ms Stratton. After Mr Cain suggested he could quit, the prime minister is understood to have “wined and dined” his aide and urged him to stay.

The role of chief of staff was discussed, with Mr Cummings and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, both of whom are said to have pushed strongly for Mr Cain’s appointment. Two sources familiar with the matter said that Mr Cain had been verbally offered the role. Another disputed this and said that Mr Johnson had not made up his mind.

Either way, Ms Symonds was intent on stopping the appointment. “She didn’t think he was the right person to do it,” an ally said. “Why would the prime minister make the person who ran government communications during the pandemic his chief of staff? It doesn’t make sense.”

Some of Ms Symonds’ allies are concerned she will be “smeared” as a Lady Macbeth figure for intervening in political matters.

“She’s allowed to have a view. It’s a critical decision for the prime minister,” the ally said. “She is deeply political and has extensive experience.”

But Ms Symonds was not alone in her concerns. Ms Stratton is understood to have made clear to the prime minister that she believed Mr Cain’s appointment would have been a mistake.

Munira Mirza, head of policy at No 10, was also said to have concerns, though allies have rejected the claim.

Ms Stratton wants a change of tone. The treatment of Sonia Khan, a former Treasury adviser who was led out of Downing Street by armed police after being accused of leaking, still rankles.

“[Allegra’s] uncomfortable with how we’ve communicated with the public and the treatment of journalists and special advisers,” a No 10 staffer said.

However, one figure who worked with Mr Cain and Mr Johnson in Downing Street said he was one of the few people who could get the prime minister to take a decision. “Boris has a tendency to put off making difficult calls but Lee gets into a place where he is prepared to take a decision. There are not many people who can do that.

“Unlike Dom, Boris doesn’t see him as having an agenda. Lee is the prime minister’s man. He created him. Unlike many people he owes everything to Boris.”

Until now Mr Cain had made a remarkable ascent. He was a special adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and briefly at No 10 under Theresa May before working for Mr Johnson in the Foreign Office. One source said that Mr Cain beat Ms Symonds, who was a special adviser herself, to the role.

Mr Cain stuck with Mr Johnson after he left Mrs May’s government, and was instrumental in the Tory leadership campaign that followed. He was rewarded for his loyalty with the role of director of communications.

But Mr Cain’s appointment caused consternation among some Tory MPs who were concerned by the influence of the Vote Leave faction in No 10. And that may be what eventually did for him after the news leaked prematurely.

One said the party would regard it “with some horror” and that it could increase rifts between the No 10 operation and backbenchers. In the glare of publicity Mr Johnson ultimately decided that the risk was not worth taking.

Mr Cain’s previous role will now be filled by James Slack, a civil servant, who has a close relationship with Ms Stratton and previously worked for Mrs May. It signals a less adversarial approach to Downing Street communications.