No 10 women call time on incompetence

Rachel Sylvester 

The queen’s gambit is an aggressive opening chess move, in which a player sacrifices a pawn to gain control of the centre of the board. In the hit Netflix series, it is also a metaphor for the way in which a female prodigy has to fight sexism and disadvantage to get to the top of a male-dominated game. There is a parallel with the power struggle in Downing Street last week that culminated in the departure of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior adviser, and Lee Cain, his communications director. The women around Boris Johnson mounted a daring attack on the Vote Leave bully boys in an attempt to force the prime minister into a more moderate, consensual approach on the centre of the political board. They also exposed a culture of misogyny that had grown up in No 10.

The briefing war that erupted over the weekend only reinforced the extent to which the machismo had taken hold. Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s partner, was described as “Princess Nut Nuts” while simultaneously being portrayed as a manipulative Lady Macbeth figure. Allegra Stratton, Mr Johnson’s new press secretary, was reported to have been reduced to tears by the viciousness of the co-ordinated personal attacks on her.

It was part of a pattern that had seen Sonia Khan, a Treasury special adviser, marched out of Downing Street by armed police and Munira Mirza, the head of the policy unit, earmarked for demotion. The atmosphere had become so poisonous that some young female staff felt scared to go into work and former aides were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One No 10 insider says “the Vote Leave lot have manipulated the idea of scheming women” but the “toxic masculinity” had to be challenged and a sense of order restored at the heart of government. “It was about calling time on incompetence,” according to the source.

There is a widespread sense of relief among senior Conservatives who believe that a shift in tone and attitude was long overdue. One former cabinet minister yearns for “a return to civility and decency in politics”. A female Tory peer says: “We can only hope that this signals a dialling down of the pathetic frat boy machismo where a bunch of grown men ran around giving each other nicknames, behaving like minor tyrants to junior colleagues and trying to pretend that picking fights and boycotting news organisations passed for either a legislative agenda or communications policy.”

Amber Rudd, the former home secretary, is convinced that having more women involved in making decisions will improve the running of the government. “The Vote Leave crew wanted to turn everything into a battle. It was deliberately violent, the language was terrible and they made the rules to suit them,” she told me. “Being consensual doesn’t mean you are weak. Looking around the world it is extraordinary how the women like Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel have handled Covid better — it’s about temperament, leadership and bringing people with you.”

The prime minister has already started building bridges with MPs who were treated with contempt by Mr Cummings and Mr Cain. Ironically, this is what forced him to self-isolate, as Lee Anderson, one of the “red wall” Tories invited into No 10 for breakfast has since tested positive for Covid-19. But it is an important first step towards repairing relations with a parliamentary party that had felt neglected and unloved.

Under the new, “kinder” Downing Street, there will be no more talk of people or institutions being “whacked” and an end to the culture wars that were designed to polarise the population. Instead of crossing the road to pick a fight, Mr Johnson’s team is determined to get a grip. One source said the “incompetence and lack of compassion” revealed by the handling of Marcus Rashford’s campaign on free school meals was “startling” and needed to be addressed. In policy terms, this may also entail making permanent the increase in Universal Credit that is due to expire in the spring.

The Northern Research Group of MPs is concerned that the attempt to soften the government’s image, promote the green agenda and emphasise the prime minister’s “liberal instincts” will alienate voters in red wall seats. But there is something deeply patronising about the idea that voters in these northern and Midlands constituencies are all socially conservative white men who do not care about the future of the planet. Half of them are women apart from anything else and there is scope for environmentally friendly policies to spread wealth around the country through investment in hydrogen production in Teesside or offshore wind farms near Grimsby. “Levelling up and green jobs go together,” says a senior Tory who also rails against the “sexist idea that girls are interested in yoga and huskies and boys are interested in the north”.

Mr Cain’s allies have suggested that a cabal of “posh southern women” have ousted him, a working-class man from Lancashire. In fact Ms Stratton spent five years as national editor for ITN, reporting from disadvantaged communities around Britain. She was embedded with the police in Birmingham, going out on multiple overnight calls, and spent a week sleeping in the trauma unit of Aintree hospital in Liverpool to report on knife crime victims. In the week before the last election she travelled from Wrexham to Grimsby talking to around 150 people in the red wall and concluded that the Tories could win these seats but also that former Labour voters had only “leant” Mr Johnson their support. Friends say that a “passion for levelling up” is why she made the jump from journalism to politics. Neil O’Brien, the new head of the prime minister’s policy board, also led the Northern Powerhouse initiative under George Osborne.

The women in No 10 may be asserting themselves but they are individuals with different priorities and temperaments. Ms Symonds is a green campaigner, Ms Stratton wants to address regional inequalities and Ms Mirza, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, remains wedded to fighting a culture war. They have united around a common cause of overturning the macho culture in Downing Street, but — in the absence of clear leadership from the top — tensions between them are bound to emerge over time.

“It’s insecurity that defines this No 10,” says one senior Tory. “Boris builds you up then cuts you down. That’s why there is constant in-fighting and it will soon no doubt be characterised as cat-fighting. The real problem is that Boris is prime minister and he’s not willing to make decisions.” The queen’s gambit is an opening move on the chess board but what really matters is the position of the king.