Carrie Symonds takes back control from Dominic Cummings and ‘mad mullahs’ of Brexit

“If you’re going to be successful in politics you need to build alliances and bring people with you,” one ally said. “This lot just makes enemies.”

Oliver Wright | Steven Swinford 

It is only a short walk down the stairs from Carrie Symonds’s Downing Street flat to the “shop” below where the prime minister’s advisers work but it may as well be a trip between different worlds.

Those worlds collided spectacularly this week as Ms Symonds helped to engineer the departure of Lee Cain, her fiancé’s communications chief. She also came close to claiming the scalp of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.

Allies of Ms Symonds have been known to refer to the prime minister’s political advisers as “the mad mullahs”, indicating the depths of the ructions that have divided No 10.

With a briefing war in full flow and dark threats of further resignations, such things can be dismissed as palace intrigue. But at its heart, it is an ideological as well as a personal and political battle for the direction of the government.

Ms Symonds’s allies insist that she is trying to free Mr Johnson from the overbearing influence of former Vote Leave operatives who hold many of the key posts in Downing Street. She blames them for isolating him from his own MPs, turning the media against the government and for overseeing a series of missteps on the pandemic that have squandered his political capital.

“If you’re going to be successful in politics you need to build alliances and bring people with you,” one ally said. “This lot just makes enemies.”

Those in the Vote Leave camp under Mr Cummings and Mr Cain insist that Ms Symonds is the destabilising influence, working on Mr Johnson to unpick decisions and trying to create a separate power structure in No 10.

“Part of the problem is that everyone comes to an agreement then he goes upstairs to No 11 at night and it all changes,” a source in the camp said. “He talks to Carrie, he talks to her friends, and his position moves.”

At the centre is the prime minister, who bounces between the two sides. At the same time, however, insiders say that Mr Johnson often changes his mind and puts off difficult decisions.

“Boris agrees with one group of people and says he is going to do one thing,” one insider said. “Then he agrees with another group of people that he’s going to do another thing. That’s difficult for everybody.”

The present ruction centres on the decision to install Allegra Stratton, the former ITV journalist and a former aide to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as the new public face of the government, fronting daily press briefings.

Mr Cain came up with the original idea for an on-screen personality. Ms Stratton did not even apply for the post.

Yet Mr Johnson approached her directly. He asked her to apply and then offered her the job. She agreed, but not without conditions.

She said that she would take the role but would answer only to the prime minister and not to Mr Cain as director of communications.

She wanted to set a different tone and did not want to be forced to defend positions set by Mr Cain over which she had no control. Mr Johnson agreed to all her terms.

Allies of Mr Cain saw the hand of Ms Symonds behind the whole operation and said that it left him in an impossible position.

“He felt undermined,” one friend said. “Allegra was imposed upon him and then he was told she wasn’t going to report to him. He felt he didn’t have a choice but to resign.”

The prime minister, trying to placate both sides, suggested a new role of chief of staff who would take a strategic overview of the entire Downing Street operation. But to Ms Stratton and Ms Symonds, herself a former Conservative Party director of communications, this merely exacerbated the existing problem. This was not a reset — it was an attempt by Mr Cain and Mr Cummings to exert even further control.

The leaked news of the potential appointment was widely attributed to Team Carrie as what turned out to be a successful attempt to prevent Mr Cain from taking the job. This version of events is disputed by allies of Ms Symonds, who have suggested that the news was leaked by her opponents as part of an attempt to bounce Mr Johnson into appointing Mr Cain.

Mr Cain resigned on Wednesday, resulting in a furious response from his Vote Leave allies. Several sources said that Mr Cummings came close to following him out the door and threatened to quit during a tense meeting with Mr Johnson that evening.

Ms Stratton has not commented publicly on the furore. On Wednesday, however, she ventured to Twitter to like a message by Susie Dent, the Countdown presenter. “Word discovery of the day is ‘stiffrump’,” Dent’s tweet said. “An obstinate and haughty individual who refuses to budge no matter what.”

Mr Cummings has chosen to stay but allies think it is likely that he will leave in the new year.

“He’s determined to complete Operation Moonshot [the mass testing programme] and get Brexit done,” an ally said. “But he’s very unhappy. Lee was his key in implementing his agenda. I would be surprised if he stays beyond Christmas.”

Mr Cummings is said to be pushing for Cleo Watson, a senior No 10 adviser with whom he worked in Vote Leave, to take the role of chief of staff.

There were suggestions that Lord Frost, the chief Brexit negotiator who worked with Mr Cain in the Foreign Office, could also quit. The peer is said to have gone “bananas” about the suggestion because of concerns that it could destabilise the final stages of talks with the European Union. He is believed to have met Mr Johnson last night and assured him that he had no plans to leave.

Oliver Lewis, Lord Frost’s deputy, is said to have seriously considered quitting, however. Mr Lewis worked alongside Mr Cain at Vote Leave. He also had a private meeting with Mr Johnson and decided to stay for the time being. “There are a lot of people who are very bruised,” one figure said.

“A lot of his team are very loyal to Lee and felt very strongly about the way he’s been treated. Dom has decided to stay for now because he is very involved in all the Operation Moonshot work but I don’t know how long that will last.”

Why does it matter? In short because the centre of gravity in Downing Street has shifted significantly. Relations between Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings are said to be tense and the prime minister now regards the whole Vote Leave team, on whom he used to rely, with a degree more suspicion.

“The PM has other people who he is depending on now,” one insider said. “He is using Allegra and others — that’s just the way he does business.”

Mr Johnson is understood to have suggested bringing Henry Newman, a senior aide to Michael Gove, into a senior policy role. “The prime minister really likes him,” a government source said. “He thinks there’s a role for him.”

Mr Newman is understood not to be aware of the approach and his friends have dismissed the claims as false, suggesting that they are part of a campaign to undermine him.

One source said that Mr Johnson wants to reset the government and make it less adversarial, ending the “culture wars” against institutions such as the BBC. The prime minister wants to focus on environmental issues, never a big priority for Brexiteers, and reset relations with his increasingly fractious parliamentary party.

Much will depend on who gets the job as chief of staff, which is the one thing that both sides can agree is badly needed to bring some sort of semblance of order to decision making.

Others are less than optimistic that the tensions will be resolved. One critic said: “The lack of decisiveness at the top . . . that’s the fundamental problem we’ve seen play out this year of indecision and flip flopping. If you can’t even stand by your most loyal trusted people and undermine them and box them in, in a way that they feel they have to go. It’s not good.”

Sir Jonathan Jones, the government’s former chief legal adviser, who resigned in September over Brexit, was even more caustic.

He posted a picture of a cocktail on Twitter with the caption: “This cocktail is bang up to date. No 10 gin. Highly corrosive acid (lime juice). More heat than light (ginger liqueur). Shake chaotically over shards of ice until meltdown. Add media froth (champagne). Garnish with tears and (wasted) thyme. Do suggest names.”

Croydon Council’s £100m spend on hotel and retail park ‘was inherently flawed’

As the council prepares to make major savings in the wake of declaring bankruptcy it will be looking back on financial decisions made in the past few years.

Tara O’Connor

These include property deals, made with the intention of making money for the cash-strapped council.

The Croydon Park Hotel was bought in August 2018 with the aim of bringing in £1 million profit a year for the council.

But the hotel in Altyre Road went into administration in June this year and is currently being used as temporary accommodation for homeless people while the council decides what to do with it.

The decision to buy the hotel was highlighted by auditors Grant Thornton in a report in the public interest, published last month, which recommended that the purchase be reviewed.

It was a ‘leader decision’ by then council leader Tony Newman and not reviewed by cabinet and the overview and scrutiny commission until a month later.

The auditors report will be discussed at an extraordinary council meeting on Thursday (November 19).

The council’s medium-term financial strategy (2018-2022) established what it called an ‘asset acquisition fund’ of £100 million to invest in property as an ongoing income stream.

This fund was increased to £200 million in December 2019.

The Colonnades Retail Park, Purley Way, was the first purchase after the asset acquisition fund was approved.

The council bought it in November 2018 for £53 million, at the time it hoped that it would provide an annual income of £1.4 million. Auditors noted that the income of the retail park had been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In December 2019 Croydon Council announced it had bought two more properties.

These were builders’ merchants Selco in Imperial Way, Waddon, and medical supplies specialist Alliance Healthcare at Vulcan Way in New Addington – at a combined cost of £14 million.

At the time it was thought the annual income from the tenants, which employed 300 people, would be £330,000.

But a damning report into the financial state of the council, published by Grant Thornton, deemed the investments “inherently flawed”.

It said: “The investments in The Colonnades and Croydon Park Hotel were not

grounded in a sufficient understanding of the retail and leisure market and have again illustrated that the council’s strategy to invest its way out of financial challenge rather than pay attention to controlling expenditure on core services was inherently flawed.”

Croydon Council has commissioned an independent review into properties the authority has bought which is expected to be published this month.

Recommendations off the back of this report will be presented alongside a budget review in February 2021.

Council leader councillor Hamida Ali said: “As a council we are fully committed to implementing the changes and improvements to address the recommendations made by the auditor as swiftly as we can, and to learn from our mistakes.

“First we must come together as a whole council, to address the serious criticisms contained within the auditors’ report and agree a way forward to ensure that this can never happen again. It will be an extremely important step on our improvement journey.”

Dissatisfied Tory MPs flock to ERG-inspired pressure groups

Just as we are struggling to read the nuance, if any, between a Ben Ingham (Independent) and a Ben Ingham (Conservative). The party he rejoined is fragmenting into groups and factions.

The new schism isn’t as simple as in the Thatcher era when Tories could be divide into the “wets” and the”dries” – far from it.

It seems that members of some of the traditional groups such as “The One Nation Group” and the “Free Market Group”  can still be identified.

But new ones are forming with euphemistic titles such as “The Common Sense Group” and “The Covid Recovery Group”. Remember how the “Brexiteers” became “The European Research Group”? Very Orwellian.

MPs seem to be hedging their bets by joining more than one, creating parties within the party.

Wonder which groups our intrepid Neil Parish and Simon Jupp belong to?

Thinking more parochially, are we going to have to pigeonhole our local Tories? Where to start? Owl

Jessica Elgot

Conservative MPs who see the government as remote or lacking a policy agenda are flocking to backbench pressure groups in the hope of forcing Downing Street to listen to their concerns.

After the success of the European Research Group in shaping Brexit policy, a string of new groups have been set up in recent months with a remit on issues from migration to criticism of “the woke agenda”. They claim they have their finger on the pulse of the subjects which voters in the party’s treasured new “red wall” seats care about.

One MP who is a member of two of the new groups told the Guardian: “I would say we are ready for a culture war, and we are confident that our policy agenda will help win it.”

The latest of the groups, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), was announced on Tuesday and appears to pose the most direct threat of rebellion over the government’s policies on lockdown. It is led by the ERG veteran Steve Baker, who one member said was “the best whip in Westminster”.

It launched with 50 members and at least 10 more have joined its ranks in the last 24 hours, the Guardian understands.

The Common Sense Group, which launched quietly in the summer with about 40 members, was the subject of a front-page story in the Daily Telegraph this week after it accused the National Trust of being “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” and in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals” over a report acknowledging links between its properties and slavery.

It now has 59 MPs and 7 members of the House of Lords in its ranks.

Sir John Hayes, the founder of the group, told the Guardian: “The ERG has served an important role, but it has very largely done its work. The government has to decide what its defining purpose is beyond Brexit. There’s a thirst in the party to have an open debate about what the direction should be now. There’s a different kind of Conservative family emerging.”

One member of the group, Jonathan Gullis, posted a “CULTURE WAR ALERT” on Facebook last month telling his followers that research by Greenwich Maritime Museum into the Royal Navy’s links to slavery was “leftwing ideological nonsense”.

Members have met with Priti Patel to discuss their views on immigration. “We had a Zoom meeting with Priti within two or three days of forming, and I hope we did have some influence, help to shape the thinking,” Hayes said.

On Wednesday, members of the Northern Research Group (NRG) used a Westminster Hall debate to call on the government to set out a “northern economic recovery plan”. One member, Southport MP Damien Moore, told the minister Kemi Badenoch: “We can’t just hope our way out of this crisis.”

Henry Hill, news editor at the Conservative Home website, said that the groups had formed because “whereas with Thatcher or Cameron you had a coherent ‘-ism’, with Johnson you don’t really have one of those. There are just whole areas of policy where Johnsonism isn’t a thing.”

The CRG has been modelled on the ERG, which was tightly organised, commissioned in-depth reports, had official briefings for journalists and MPs, and employed a staff researcher who handled communications.

The new group has already engaged the services of Ed Barker, a seasoned Tory PR professional and former parliamentary candidate who worked for the pro-Brexit group Global Britain and for Esther McVey’s short-lived leadership campaign.

Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who was one of the first “red wall” group of Tories to be elected, in 2017, is a member of the Common Sense Group and the NRG.

He said the spate of new groups reflected the priorities of a new kind of Tory MP, drawing comparisons with some of the thinktanks that emerged under Theresa May, like the free-market group Freer, and Onward, run by former May advisers Will Tanner and the MP Neil O’Brien.

“When we got in in 2017, there was this proliferation of new groups,” Bradley said. “In 2019, there are also a lot of new ideas coming from seats that have new priorities, levelling up the north, immigration.

“This is a mechanism of getting that across. But this time there is senior leadership who are invested too, big guns on the backbenches like Jake Berry, around John Hayes in Common Sense, there’s Esther McVey in [another group] the Blue Collar Conservatives. It’s very much a 2019 viewpoint that has found a wider reception.”

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, cautioned against groups “being amplified because if a mouthy backbencher is said to represent something it lends them legitimacy”. But he said the “turning of the page” from Brexit had helped create space for such voices. “The energy almost needed somewhere else to go within this closed system,” he said, noting of the CRG that “the journey from Euroscepticism to lockdown scepticism is fairly easy ”.

A Tory MP who is part of the CRG said that the new groupings were all viewed as “adversarial” by Downing Street. “The fundamental reason for this is that No 10 is so dominant,” they said. “It’s clear that if you want to be heard, you have to shout. Johnson has no views beyond Brexit. We’re in a particularly odd place where access is limited to a very narrow faction and so it’s hardly surprising if real conservatives are trying to find a way to act.”

Some backbenchers on the left of the party are concerned about a new factionalism. One who is aligned with the One Nation Group of soft-right Conservatives said they feared the emergence of multiple “parties within a party”.

The MP added: “I’m wary of some of these endeavours, given the grief they wrought on the party last year. But it should be said that you don’t have to be a headbanger to think that the sphere of influence in No 10 is too small and that groups that put pressure on things that Tory voters care about is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Back to cost-cutting and hospital closures? Wrong, wrong, wrong. We need a billion for a Devon NHS post-pandemic new deal

Unbelievable! – Owl

Posted on November 12, 2020 

Today’s Health and Adult Care Scrutiny meeting painted a grim picture of the situation in Devon, with leadership which is just not meeting the needs of the situation:

Shortages of hospital and ICU beds – the SW has the fewest in the country (and the UK almost the fewest in Europe) meaning that – despite our Covid level being the lowest – the two lockdowns have been necessary to save our hospital system.

‘Physical space constraints’ due to the pandemic are restricting the restoration of ‘elective’ surgery – after improving more slowly than planned, this is now going backwards because of more Covid cases. 4,500 people and rising have been waiting over a year!

There are bed shortages in mental health units, too – as well as staff shortages, which are also affecting 111 and after-hours call-outs, with weak governance in both services.

Yet in the midst of all this, Devon CCG are saying that they must go back to implementing £400m financial savings (planned before the pandemic) in 2021-22.

They also want to proceed with the planned closure of Teignmouth hospital, although we have insisted that Scrutiny will look at the consultation results (which were not ready today) and send our views to the CCG before it makes a decision.

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! The pandemic will not end on 31st March, so EMERGENCY FUNDING MUST CONTINUE NEXT FINANCIAL YEAR. And we need to plan now for a post-pandemic new deal:

  • Centralise Covid services in the acute hospitals, disperse other services to more sites, restore proper intermediate (step-down) care outside the care home system.
  • Recognise that we have been badly caught out by Covid – we need to permanently maintain a larger hospital system, with more beds, so that we are ready for the next pandemic (which experts say could be worse).
  • Make full use of our community hospital system, so that people can be treated safely, closest to home wherever possible. Drop the Teignmouth closure programme.

Devon CCG and DCC must go and tell the Government, which is splashing out tens of billions on testing, that it must find a billion more for Devon’s NHS and adult care services. Cancel the cuts and invest in a viable future plan. WILL M.P.s AND COUNCILLORS OF ALL PARTIES JOIN ME IN PUSHING FOR THIS?

There are more Covid-positive patients in Devon hospitals now than during first lockdown

There are more patients in Devon hospitals now, after a positive Covid-19 test, than at the peak of the pandemic – with that number set to rise until the end of November.

Daniel Clark 

Dr Paul Johnson, chairman of Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, presented the stark picture that the NHS is dealing with to Thursday’s Local Outbreak Engagement Board meeting.

He told the board that there were currently 219 patients in hospitals in Devon – although not all were admitted for Covid-19 – and that it wasn’t until the end of November that they expected to begin seeing the impact of the second lockdown and patient numbers begin to reduce.

Dr Johnson said: “Lockdown coming when it did was very good news for us as if cases kept rising beyond the end of November, then the NHS wouldn’t have been able to cope.”

In presenting the issues and pressures the NHS are facing, Dr Johnson said that the South West does have problems that could have seen it run out of beds quickest, due to geography, an older population and a relatively lower proportion of beds, which made the region vulnerable even with a lowest number of cases.

He said that there three pressures that hospitals were now facing they were not the case in April and May that means they are under more stress now than back in Spring.

The board heard that in April and May, elective referrals from GPs to hospitals were only at 40 per cent of the usual figures as people stayed home, but as of September, that was nearly back up to 100 per cent, with Dr Johnson saying: “Unlike the first wave when we had breathing space from routine elective activity, we are not seeing that this time.”

He added that in the first wave, cancer referrals in April fell to around a quarter of their usual levels, only returning to normal by June, adding: “That gave us breathing space, but was a worry that people with cancer symptoms were not coming forward and missing the chance for an early diagnoses.

“We are still waiting to see if that is the case and referrals have picked up and back at the high level and we are confident we are picking up the diagnoses now but have the added pressure.”

And he said that accident and emergency admissions fell to around 40 per cent of usual levels in the spring, but they have also returned to just below normal levels, but it felt more pressured due to the extra infection controls that need to be taken.

Dr Johnson told the board that normally the NHS aims to only have a maximum of 90 per cent of beds occupied in hospitals to ensure they have capacity to deal with any ‘surge events’ but that in the spring, only 45 per cent of beds were being used after emptying hospitals of patients to ‘deal with what could have been the worst case scenario’.

He said: “Thankfully we didn’t see it but we had the capacity to deal with it.”

The board heard that around 93 per cent of beds in Derriford Hospital, 91 per cent in Torbay Hospital, 90 per cent in Exeter, and 82 per cent of beds in North Devon Hospital were currently occupied by patients who were in hospital for a variety of reasons, not all Covid-19 related.

But he said: “The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital has exceeded the peak in the first wave, which gives us problems in hospitals.

“Some operations have had to be cancelled and we are having to close some wards as people who when admitted tested negative initially have in subsequent screenings tested positive and when happens, they are usually on a non-covid ward so that had implications around discharges and bed occupancy.

“We are not see a slowing yet and it usually around four to five weeks before any impact on hospital admissions from measures so we won’t see anything from the lockdown until the end of November, and we expect to see more of a rise for the next two and a half weeks, and then a drop as we see the impact on the lockdown.

“We are making plans to optimise the use of beds and to get people home quickly, but if it keeps rising beyond the end of November, then the NHS wouldn’t have been able to cope, so lockdown coming when it did was very good news for us to cope.”

Dr Virginia Pearson, director of Public Health for Devon, said that it was more important than ever that the public interventions of social distancing, hand washing, and wearing face coverings were adhered to do in order not only to protect ourselves but the NHS as well.

She added: “We can see the spread of the virus leading to increase in case in older age groups, which parallels with pressure with the NHS.

“There is some encouraging info from the North which suggests that they have peaked and but we will see the pressure going up for a couple of weeks, so need to expect some disruption to services.”

The meeting heard that in terms of the latest figures around coronavirus cases for Devon, the numbers were ‘relatively flat’ but there was an increasing level of ‘background noise’,

Simon Chant, public health specialist, said that the infection rates for Devon were 104 per 100,000 population, which was well below the figures for Plymouth and Torbay, and significantly below the England average of 245 per 100,000.

Figures for Exeter, East Devon, North Devon and West Devon were just over the 100/100,000 mark, with lower numbers in Teignbridge, South Hams, Torridge and Mid Devon.

Dr Pearson added that the underlying backdrop was of a gradual increase in case numbers, but that the amount of testing in Devon has increased phenomenally, from around 8,000 tests a week back in September to over 20,000 tests a week now.

She said: “Partly there are more cases because of more testing, but there is also more spread, and the pattern is small numbers scattered across the whole of Devon. There is more testing availability in Devon with the number of national labs increased, but also people are recognising that important if have symptoms to get tested.

“We want to know what is out there and it is important to understand the spread of the disease and there is no substitute for being able to get rapid data and take rapid action around self-isolation.”

Since the second lockdown began last Thursday, figures showed that traffic on Devon’s roads was down 30 per cent on weekdays and 40 per cent on weekends, but that compared to a 70-80 per cent during the first lockdown.

Dr Pearson added: “The big difference is that in the first lockdown, schools were closed, so some of the transport is school traffic. This will give us an idea of the extent how much younger people are impacting the spread. There has been an impact in schools, but not huge or a significant issue, so we will keep a close eye on the incidence, where it is, and what age groups as we go through the lockdown.”