Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, dramatically announced his resignation on Thursday night, in what is expected to signal the start of an exodus of Vote Leave veterans from Downing Street.
Mr Cummings is to quit by the end of the year in the latest dramatic fallout from the prime minister’s decision to break the stranglehold of pro-Brexit campaigners on his Number 10 operation.
The architect of the 2016 Brexit vote confirmed late on Thursday that he intended to make himself “redundant” by the end of the year, after days of increased tensions at the heart of government.
The Financial Times reported on Thursday that Mr Cummings was expected to leave by the new year and later he told the BBC “my position hasn’t changed since my January blog”. In that blog he said he intended to make himself “redundant” by the end of 2020.
Senior government figures claim that Mr Cummings and Lee Cain, Downing Street director of communications, have been identified as suspects in the leak of the government’s plan to introduce a lockdown in England last week.
Both men have categorically denied they were responsible for the leak, which infuriated Mr Johnson. Mr Cain quit on Wednesday after the prime minister refused to promote him to the role of chief of staff.
“Neither of them give a damn about the leak inquiry but it’s the catalyst that set this all off,” said one person at the heart of government. Mr Johnson believed the “chatty rat” who leaked the lockdown plan was trying to bounce him into making the decision.
Rumours have also swirled at Westminster that Mr Cummings was leaving because Mr Johnson was about to make compromises to sign a free-trade deal with the EU.
But Mr Cummings said that “tonight’s rumours that somehow the Brexit negotiations are involved are invented and comical to anybody who knows what’s happening in No 10”.
Other Whitehall officials have insisted the Brexit trade talks, which are deadlocked, are not the cause of the bloodletting in Downing Street. Instead, it is a fight over access to the prime minister and power.
Mr Cummings’ confirmation of his departure referred back to his blog in January when he wrote about his desire to recruit “misfits and weirdos” to Number 10. “We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant,” he wrote.
The prime minister’s refusal at a tense one-to-one meeting to make Vote Leave veteran Lee Cain his chief of staff was seen by Tory MPs as a watershed moment. Mr Cain announced his resignation shortly afterwards.
Asked whether the Vote Leave “gang” was breaking up, one adviser said: “It very much feels that way. There are a lot of very unhappy people. It’s a big mess.” Asked earlier if Mr Cummings would leave too, a friend said: “I think so.”
Mr Cummings’ attempt to insert his ally Mr Cain as chief of staff was a final desperate bid to keep “control” of the prime minister and the people allowed to see him.
Power battle inside Downing Street
On the up
Boris Johnson’s 32-year-old fiancée and mother of his son Wilfred knows her way around Westminster and the Conservative party. She previously served as the party’s director of communications and advised several cabinet ministers. Now as an environmental campaigner, she is credited with pushing climate change to the top of Mr Johnson’s agenda and improving his image. While her counsel is offered behind the closed door of the Number 10 residence, her view that Lee Cain was unsuitable to be chief of staff proved decisive in his resignation.
Until this week, Allegra Stratton was best known as a political journalist for The Guardian, BBC and ITV News. The 39-year-old switched to politics earlier this year to provide communications advice for chancellor Rishi Sunak and is credited with helping develop his polished image. Married to James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator, she was Mr Johnson’s pick to lead the new televised Downing Street press briefings starting next year. But her appointment led to repeated clashes with the outgoing director of communications over who had the prime minister’s ear.
The pugilistic Vote Leave team, Mr Johnson’s praetorian guard and support mechanism in Downing Street, can now see their power slipping away.
Allegra Stratton, a former television journalist and adviser to chancellor Rishi Sunak, is being brought in as Mr Johnson’s new spokeswoman and from January will preside over “White House-style” daily televised briefings. She has told friends that she wants to foster a less confrontational style and will answer directly to Mr Johnson.
Meanwhile, Mr Cummings feared that the new chief of staff role was a direct threat to his own power, hence his attempt to install his friend Mr Cain in the job. But Tory MPs, tired of the dysfunctional Number 10 operation, told party whips that Mr Johnson had to break the knot with the Vote Leave team.
There was also a wave of protests from senior women in the party — including Mr Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds — who resent the “macho” atmosphere in Number 10. “Carrie and Allegra got one over the boys’ club,” said one senior Tory MP.
Mr Johnson has now twice overruled Mr Cummings on big personnel issues: the appointment of Ms Stratton and his refusal to make Mr Cain chief of staff. “Boris has now gone against the Dom crew twice, the trust is all gone,” said one government insider.
One official close to the Number 10 power struggle said Mr Johnson was right to make a stand: “This is about decency in public, the standards and conduct the electorate expect of us. It’s about who runs Number 10.”
From the Vote Leave campaign, to the Foreign Office, to Downing Street, Lee Cain has been at the prime minister’s right-hand side as his longest serving and most loyal aide dealing with the media. The 39-year-old former tabloid journalist helped guide Mr Johnson to the premiership, yet his communications operation in Downing Street has been widely criticised by ministers and MPs during the coronavirus pandemic. The arrival of Allegra Stratton suggested his days might be numbered and his failed bid to become the Number 10 chief of staff ended his close relationship with the prime minister. His exit is more than personal, it marks a decisive moment for Mr Johnson’s government.
The prime minister’s outgoing chief adviser Dominic Cummings had been unchallenged since he entered Number 10 in the summer of 2019 — even in the face of huge public outcry over his trip to the north-east of England that broke the government’s lockdown rules. The 48-year-old ardent Brexiter was head of strategy for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and has worked on and off as a special adviser in Westminster. Married to Mary Wakefield, a journalist at The Spectator, his time out of government was devoted to dense blog posts and hefty physics tomes. He has increasingly clashed with Mr Johnson over his combative attitude to governing. With the abrupt departure of his protégé Lee Cain, there had already a been a growing view that his days in Downing Street were also numbered even before Thursday’s news.
One expectation among Whitehall mandarins is that Mr Cummings may leave Number 10 to become the first head of his pet project: a new high-risk, high-reward scientific research body based on the Darpa agency in the US.
Meanwhile, David Frost, Britain’s chief EU negotiator and a close friend of Mr Cain, also briefly considered resigning on Wednesday night. Only just before midnight was it confirmed he would be staying.
Lord Frost’s friends said he was “very upset” by Mr Cain’s departure, but insisted that his agonising on Wednesday was unrelated to progress — or lack of it — in the talks on a UK-EU trade deal.