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 www.thetimes.co.uk 

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.”