On a surface level, the story behind Lee Cain’s coming departure as Downing Street’s Director of Communications is just another tale of personnel and processology, involving a tour of the Whitehall maze of briefings, leaks and inquiries.
At a deeper one, it has the potential to change the nature, strategy and direction of the Government – bringing in its wake the possible resignation of Dominic Cummings, and so the end of Vote Leave’s grip on the Conservative Party in government.
For it marks a clash between two styles of government: Vote Leave’s restless culture of permanent revolution, and a greener, more recognisably conservative, gentler one – as championed by Carrie Symonds, herself a former senior SpAd.
This is a simplification of a more complex picture, as Cummings’ original appointment last year as the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser demonstrates: there is no suggestion that Symonds opposed it. But it will serve.
With Cummings came a number of his former Vote Leave team – including Lee Cain, who had worked with Boris Johnson during his post-Foreign Office campaign for the Conservative leadership, as Director of Communications.
Cain was not the Prime Minister’s first choice for the role, but made his feelings about the possibility of being passed over very clear. Johnson, who dislikes confrontation, gave him the job after all.
The dislike that both Cummings and Cain have for Tory MPs is overstated, but their contempt for the media is not – much of it, anyway. The smashing election win last year did nothing to quell their sense that it is out of touch with many voters.
Cummings came back after it exercising the same role in Number Ten as before. Some insist on seeing him as an Alastair Campbell figure, spinning the press. Or as an all-dominant managerial figure in Downing Street.
This is simply wrong. Cummings doesn’t run Number Ten’s media operation, rarely engages with journalists, and whatever synoptic view he may have had of the government’s activities has narrowed as time has passed.
Increasingly, his energies have been expended on getting the “moonshot” test and trace schemes up and running from scratch; bits of Brexit, and above all his driving passions: creating a British DARPA and reforming procurement systems.
So near the top of Government we have Cummings, Cain – and now Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary. But there is no fourth C: that’s to say, no Chief of Staff.
Eddie Lister (or Baron Udny-Lister, as he now is) does bits and pieces of the job as the Prime Minister’s Chief Political Adviser. But at the age of 71 he is no spring chicken, has recently gone to the Lords, and is winding down.
Now go forward in time from last year’s election to this year’s main event – the advent of Coronavirus and, with it, those daily Government press conferences.
Viewership was variable over time, but the bigger-hitter Ministers, such as Johnson and Rishi Sunak, attracted viewers. Cain floated the idea of widening their scope and holding them regularly, American-style.
Which would bring with it a press spokesman, answering journalists’ questions in public. It seems to have been agreed all-round that a woman would fit the bill. But at this point, differences within Johnson’s top team began to set in.
For by now, Symonds and some Ministers wanted the media operation to work in what they saw as a less confrontational way. Essentially, they were losing patience with Cain, and the confrontational flavour of Continuity Vote Leave.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that there was resistance to Cain’s candidate for the post: Ellie Price of the BBC. It went to one of the well-established front-runners, who is on very good terms with Symonds: Allegra Stratton.
Stratton is currently Rishi Sunak’s Director of Communications, and will be Downing Street’s Press Secretary from the New Year. Cain, who would have worked with Price, was unwilling to do so with Stratton: he appears to see her as taking his job.
Which takes us to another appointment – that, at long last, of a Chief of Staff. All concerned agree that this disorganised Number Ten needs one badly. But, again, there is no agreement over who should take the post.
Cummings wants Cain, no doubt as a way of maintaining the hold of the Vote Leave project on Downing Street, which he believes is inseparable from any kind of governmental success.
And all those opposed to that project do not – a spectrum of opinion that runs, in Tory circles, from Symonds through some Ministers to those MPs who have clashed with Cummings during the EU referendum and since.
We now enter the cloud of unknowing that obscures the last few days. Did the Prime Minister promise Cain the post? Did Cain think that the Prime Minister had promised him the post?
What, if anything, did Johnson actually say? Was there a misunderstanding? Or did the Prime Minister, who holds a Nobel Prize for Conversational Ambiguity, lay on a masterclass demonstration of it?
All will doubtless be revealed, but what’s certain is that a story suggesting that Cain’s appointment was imminent ended up in yesterday’s Times.
This site’s snap take was that such a story could only serve to mobilise Cain’s internal opponents, and so was unlikely to have come from him or from Cummings.
It does indeed appear to have had such an effect – but, today, getting the story into print looks more likely to have been a Vote Leave-approved means of putting pressure on Johnson to make the appointment. If so, it failed.
Furthermore, yesterday’s Times story wasn’t the only intriguing one to have popped up recently in the paper. The Saturday before last, it reported, together with the Daily Mail and, in part, Sky News, that lockdown was coming.
That story’s purpose, almost certainly, was to bounce the Prime Minister into announcing one. If so, the gambit succeeded. Johnson held a sudden press conference that very day to so do.
The decision meant more kickback from shutdown-sceptic backbenchers, a Commons revolt, and embarrassment for the Government’s scientific advisers when it emerged that they had deployed out of date figures to help make their case.
It may be worth noting that Cummings, perhaps contrary to expectation, has been a strong supporter of lockdowns – and has long been anxious, too, about the prospect of a second wave.
Nothing in the last year has angered him more than what he insists is a false claim that he favoured a herd immunity approach to the virus, and said that it would consequently be acceptable to some pensioners to die.
Perhaps this explains why their opponents are suggesting that he and Cain were the source of the leak – an allegation that his friends also deny.
For what it’s worth, this site has reason to believe that, as is so often the case, there may well have been no single leak – and that the Times/Mail/Sky accounts may not necessarily have come from the same source.
At any rate, Helen Macnamara has charge of the Prime Minister’s investigation. She has also been reported to be blocking any move by Johnson to clear Priti Patel from allegations of bullying.
Finally, let’s pan the camera back from the Kremlinology of who may have leaked what to whom; and who gets on and doesn’t get on with whom, and raise our eyes to the horizan.
Today, soon, during the run-up to Christmas or in the New Year – who knows? – Cummings, Oliver Lewis and other Vote Leavers may quit.
It is too early to know whether Cummings’ insurgent commitment to smashing consensus will bring results – in science, in technology, in better procurement, in civil service renewal.
What’s become clear, however, is that a small band of true believers simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to run Downing Street on its own. Even if a persistent cause of its present troubles is the Prime Minister’s disorderly character.
But if Johnson can’t manage with Vote Leave in control, how likely is it that he would be able to manage without it? Ponder the trail of the last few years.
The Prime Minister appointed Cummings because Parliament was gridlocked, the Conservatives languishing in the polls, and a general election apparently impossible to obtain – and, were it somehow to happen, very hard to win.
Like it or not, Cummings was instrumental in gaining the election, and then winning it by a near-landslide – just as Vote Leave succeeded in 2016 during the EU referendum campaign.
The Government must now face the following challenges, in no special order: the Brexit trade deal, this very week and next; Covid-19; a coming spending review, in which it will must prepare to meet the Coronavirus bills…
…the strategic defence review, next year’s Scottish elections and the spectre of independence, and constructing a post-Brexit trade policy – not to mention levelling up, and much else.
Through this smog of choking problems, and the whisper of briefing and counter-briefing, a well-known but ultimately riddling figure can vaguely be discerned – the Prime Minister himself.
What does Johnson really want to do in government? Is he at heart Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave radical? Or is he the more consensual, cuddly figure that he cut as Mayor of London? Does he even know?
At any rate, Gladstone once said of Lord Derby, then the Conservative leader, that Disraeli was “at once his necessity and his curse”. Perhaps the same is true of insurrectionary, unTory Vote Leave.