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    Dominic Cummings ‘Vote Leave empire ‘starts to fall apart’ after Carrie row

    ‘There’s a revolution happening’: Dominic Cummings ‘is looking for a way to leave No10 without losing face’ as his Vote Leave empire ‘starts to fall apart’ after Carrie and her squad see off Boris aide Lee Cain in brutal civil war

    • Longstanding Johnson aide Lee Cain was being touted for major promotion to No10 chief of staff this week
    • The move appeared to have been blocked by opposition from the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds and others
    • Mr Cain announced he is leaving last night revealing he had been offered the powerful post but turned it down
    • Speculation Dominic Cummings could follow Vote Leave ally Mr Cain out of the door amid meltdown

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    Tories predicted Dominic Cummings could be next of the Downing Street door today after an extraordinary civil war erupted in public. 

    The heart of government is in chaos after longstanding Johnson aide Lee Cain, a Vote Leave veteran and Cummings loyalist, announced he was resigning despite being touted for promotion to No10 chief of staff. 

    The departure was the culmination of a bitter power struggle inside Mr Johnson’s top team, with rival factions battling for supremacy even as the government struggles to tackle the coronavirus crisis. 

    Mr Cummings does not want the job himself, but had pushed for his ally to be appointed despite warnings from the PM’s fiancée Ms Symonds – herself a former Conservative Party head of media – that it would be ‘a mistake’ given how the campaign against the pandemic had gone so far. She is said to have complained the No10 operation was being run in an ‘uncollegiate’ way and the PM was not getting ‘good advice’. 

    There are also claims that Allegra Stratton, Downing Street’s new on-screen press secretary, and senior aide Munira Mirza were against the move. It would have meant the PM’s core circle being exclusively male.

    Mr Cummings turned up to work in No10 as usual this morning despite losing the latest tug of war for the premier’s ear, and blanked questions about his own future. 

    But senior Tories said it was clear that Mr Cummings was losing his grip on No10, and would soon be departing. 

    One jubilant Tory MP told MailOnline: ‘Vote Leave has left!’ 

    A well-connected Tory peer said it was significant that special advisers had started briefing against Mr Cummings, and suggested he could be looking for an excuse to leave without losing face. 

    ‘There is a revolution happening. Things have clearly started to fall apart,’ they said.  

    Boris Johnson ‘s top aide Lee Cain  (pictured arriving for work today) has announced he is quitting amid rumours Carrie Symonds was trying to block his promotion to Number 10 ‘s chief of staff

    Boris Johnson (pictured arriving back from his morning run today) is struggling to hold his No10 operation together after the bitter power struggle

    Boris Johnson (pictured arriving back from his morning run today) is struggling to hold his No10 operation together after the bitter power struggle

    Mr Cain, a Vote Leave campaign veteran who has served Mr Johnson since his stint at the Foreign Office, will be replaced as director of communications by James Slack, the prime minister's official spokesperson

    Mr Cain, a Vote Leave campaign veteran who has served Mr Johnson since his stint at the Foreign Office, will be replaced as director of communications by James Slack, the prime minister’s official spokesperson 

    Dominic Cummings

    Carrie Symonds

    Mr Cummings (pictured left today) had pushed for his ally to be promoted in the face of opposition from the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds (right), who warned his appointment would be ‘a mistake’

    The Vote Leavers at the heart of power 

    Dominic Cummings and Cleo Watson are two of the key Vote Leave alumni in Downing Street

    Dominic Cummings and Cleo Watson are two of the key Vote Leave alumni in Downing Street

    Boris Johnson inner circle includes a host of alumni from the Vote Leave campaign he spearheaded.

    Promotion for Lee Cain would have been confirmation of the enduring influence of the successful EU referendum battle on the shape of his government.

    Mr Cain was one of the leading spokesmen for the campaign, and has been serving as No10 director of communications since Mr Johnson became PM.

    Dominic Cummings – now the PM’s chief aide – is regarded as the strategic mastermind behind Vote Leave.

    Other campaign veterans who became pivotal players at the heart of Downing Street include Cleo Watson and Oliver Lewis. 

    Tory MP Dominic Raab was a key advocate for the Brexit push and is now Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State – effectively Mr Johnson’s deputy.

    His senior adviser Rob Oxley also played a crucial role in Vote Leave. 

    Priti Patel is in another of the great offices of state as Home Secretary.

    And Michael Gove, the other architect of the Brexit campaign, is in a key Cabinet role despite his notoriously volatile relationship with Mr Johnson – whom he supported for the Tory leadership in 2016, but then betrayed. 

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    Ms Stratton was said to have only agreed to take the job if she reported directly to the PM, not Mr Cain – leaving him feeling ‘wholly undermined’. 

    Mr Cain apparently opposed her appointment and the pair had not spoken since she arrived in the role a fortnight ago. 

    Tory MPs and advisers hailed the news as an opportunity for a ‘reset’ after a ‘tribal and aggressive’ first phase to the Johnson government. 

    There had been a vicious response when it emerged Mr Cain was in the frame for the top job yesterday, with angry politicians sniping that it was a case of ‘Cain not able’ and another minister saying ‘WTF?!’

    In his resignation statement, Mr Cain confirmed he had been offered the powerful post – which allies insisted was ‘basically what he does anyway’ – but after ‘careful consideration’ would be leaving at the end of the year.  

    He said: ‘After careful consideration I have this evening resigned as No 10 director of communications and will leave the post at the end of the year.

    ‘It has been a privilege to work as an adviser for Mr Johnson for the last three years – being part of a team that helped him win the Tory leadership contest, secure the largest Conservative majority for three decades – and it was an honour to be asked to serve as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.’

    He also paid a glowing tribute to Mr Johnson’s ‘loyalty and leadership’ and thanked his colleagues at Number 10.

    In response to the resignation, Mr Johnson said: ‘I want to thank Lee for his extraordinary service to the Government over the last four years.

    ‘He has been a true ally and friend and I am very glad that he will remain director of communications until the new year and to help restructure the operation. He will be much missed.’ 

    The former journalist will serve until the end of the year when he will be replaced by the PM’s official spokesman, James Slack. 

    In a round of interviews this morning, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick desperately tried to play down the situation, insisting the government’s focus was still on the deadly pandemic.

    He told BBC Breakfast: ‘It’s understandable that journalists, in particular, will be interested in the personalities of who works as advisers within Number 10 Downing Street.

    ‘But the Prime Minister runs the Government.

    ‘He is surrounded by a good team, a strong team of advisers, and, of course, the Cabinet.

    ‘Our sole focus in Government is trying to steer the country through the pandemic.’

    He told Sky News: ‘At the end of the day, this is one individual.

    ‘The Prime Minister runs the Government.’

    Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – Mr Cummings’ former boss and still a close ally – was challenged in the Commons over whom he sided with in the extraordinary spat.

    SNP Cabinet Office spokesman Pete Wishart said the ‘faceless characters who actually run this country in Number 10 are at each other’s throats’.

    Mr Wishart asked: ‘Whose side is he on – Dom’s or Carrie’s?’

    Mr Gove replied: ‘I’m on the side of people from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth who voted to leave the European Union, who want us as a United Kingdom to make a success of these new opportunities (Brexit).

    ‘I know the Scottish Government is a total stranger to behind-the-scenes intrigue and briefing wars, so I can imagine his shock and amazement to see things reported in the newspapers.’

    Mr Gove said the Government continues to make decisions in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom. 

    The cordial statements from Mr Cain and Mr Johnson masked disarray at the heart of government, with warring factions competing for influence in Downing Street.

    Mr Cummings, who has stuffed the corridors of Number 10 with old Vote Leave allies, was initially thought to be considering his position but has resolved to stay in Government, the BBC reported. 

    That Mr Cain’s promotion was backed by Mr Cummings is one reason it caused such hostility among MPs. 

    Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer was said to have been ‘inundated’ with messages from MPs urging him to intervene with the PM to try to block Mr Cain’s appointment.     

    One former minister had warned that allowing No 10’s Vote Leave faction to tighten its grip would be a ‘nail in the coffin’ of Mr Johnson’s Government. 

    Multiple sources said Ms Symonds, 32, had intervened to try to block the appointment.

    One said: ‘Carrie has had her own run-ins with Lee, but she’s also been pressured by MPs to stop this.

    ‘You have to remember she is a former director of communications for the party and has good relations with a lot of senior MPs.

    ‘She has told the PM giving Lee the job would be a mistake – she’s just been trying to stop him doing something stupid that would damage the Government.’

    Another friend told the Times: ‘She knows he runs the operation in an uncollegiate way where few people can get to him. 

    ‘There’s not a diversity of opinion, he is not getting good advice. His top advisers are running him into the ground.’

    The appointment was also said to be opposed by other senior women in Downing Street, including Mr Johnson’s policy chief Munira Mirza and incoming press secretary Allegra Stratton. Allies of Priti Patel insisted she had not been involved this week, despite claims she urged against the move. 

    Election guru Sir Lynton Crosby, who masterminded Mr Johnson’s mayoral victories in London, was also said to have told the Prime Minister to think again.

    Allegra Stratton

    Munira Mirza

    Munira Mirza (pictured right), 42, the highly respected head of the Downing Street policy unit and Allegra Stratton (left n Downing Street today) are thought to have been against the promotion

    That Lee Cain's promotion was backed by Mr Cummings, whose close relationship with Mr Cain is one reason it caused such hostility among MP

    That Lee Cain’s promotion was backed by Mr Cummings, whose close relationship with Mr Cain is one reason it caused such hostility among MP

    Carrie Symonds - a former media chief at CCHQ who has previously had a fractious relationship with Mr Cain

    Carrie Symonds – a former media chief at CCHQ who has previously had a fractious relationship with Mr Cain

    Who’s who in the civil war between Cummings’ Brexit Boys and the ‘Carrie Symonds crew’ 

    Cummings pictured outside Downing Street in one of the outfits that has made him an unlikely style icon

    Cummings pictured outside Downing Street in one of the outfits that has made him an unlikely style icon 

    TEAM CAIN 

    Dominic Cummings 

    Age: 48

    Official title: Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister 

    Boris Johnson’s maverick Svengali, who gained national notoriety for his lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’ before a trip back to London. 

    The former Vote Leave director backed his former campaign staffer Lee Cain to take over as the PM’s chief of staff – prompting a bitter wrangle with Johnson’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, who warned it would be a ‘mistake’. 

    Cummings, who is known for his acerbic demeanour and preference for hoodies and ‘slob’ style jackets over suits, eventually lost the vicious tug-of-war, prompting Cain’s resignation and speculation that he could follow. 

    He is known to have a difficult relationship with Symonds, with reports earlier this year suggesting she was opposed to his aggressive approach to politics and tendency to ‘pick unnecessary fights’ which could harm the PM’s image. 

    Mr Cummings was born in County Durham and is married to Mary Wakefield, a senior journalist with the Spectator magazine, a Tory bible that Boris Johnson once edited. 

    Cummings ally Cleo Watson seen outside No10

    Cummings ally Cleo Watson seen outside No10 

    Cleo Watson 

    Age: 31

    Official title: Head of the Prime Minister’s Priorities and Campaigns

    It has become a familiar ritual in Downing Street: photographers clamour to take pictures of elegant Cleo Watson as she strides towards the No 10 door with a dishevelled Dominic Cummings, the pair looking, as one wag put it, like ‘a gazelle with a pit pony’.

    Watson is Cummings’ special adviser and the pair share a close relationship, with one Whitehall source describing her as ‘the Cummings whisperer’ because she is one of very few people who can calm him down when he flies into a rage.

    Watson is one of five high-achieving sisters from an extraordinary family whose story could come from a Jane Austen novel. Indeed, she is the second of her siblings to work closely with a Tory leader. Her sister Annabel, 41, known as Bee, was Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. 

    Watson worked with Vote Leave during the 2016 EU referendum, before landing a top job in the policy unit in No 10 during May’s premiership. 

    She remained at the heart of Government under Johnson and now boasts the title of ‘Head of the Prime Minister’s Priorities and Campaigns’. 

    Oliver Lewis is another Vote Leave member to now work in No10

    Oliver Lewis is another Vote Leave member to now work in No10 

    Oliver Lewis (nickname ‘Sonic’) 

    Age: Late 20s

     Official title: Brexit policy adviser

    A former Vote Leave staffer, Brexit policy adviser Oliver Lewis is a close ally of Cummings – who is known to address him by the nickname ‘Sonic’. 

    Oxford-educated Lewis has been working closely with Michael Gove on No Deal preparations, and was inspired by Cummings’ love of science to construct an enormous spreadsheet to model difference scenarios styled on techniques used by NASA. 

    He has also worked closely alongside chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, and earlier this year was accused by EU sources of repeatedly trying to shut down negotiations, according to The Sun. 

    After backing his mentor in his quest to install Cain at the top of Downing Street, Lewis has also become embroiled in the ugly fallout following Symonds’ victory. 

    Reports today suggested he was also ‘seriously considering’ his position.  

    CARRIE’S CREW  

    Carrie Symonds - seen at a Remembrance Day service in Whitehall on Sunday - has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Downing Street

    Carrie Symonds – seen at a Remembrance Day service in Whitehall on Sunday – has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Downing Street 

    Carrie Symonds

    Age: 32

    Official title: NA

    Boris Johnson’s fiancee and a former Conservative Party head of media, Symonds has emerged as a force to be reckoned in No10. 

    She is known to have a difficult relationship with Cummings and blocked his bid to install his ally Lee Cain as the PM’s chief of staff, insisting this would be a ‘mistake’ given how the campaign against the pandemic had gone so far.

    A brutal stand-off ensued before Symonds emerged as triumphant – with Cain announcing his resignation and Cummings said to be also considering his position. 

    Symonds grew up in west London and attended Godolphin and Latymer School, an independent day school for girls, and the University of Warwick. 

    She worked for the Tory party from 2009, before hitting the headlines when her affair with Mr Johnson, 56, came to light. 

    A passionate conservationist, she had a direct impact on government policy after a badger cull in Derbyshire was called off, a move that saved thousands of the animals. 

    Allegra Stratton is poised to become the face of Boris Johnson's new US-style TV press briefings

    Allegra Stratton is poised to become the face of Boris Johnson’s new US-style TV press briefings

    Allegra Stratton

    Age: 39

    Official title: No10 Press Secretary 

    Allegra Stratton, the former journalist poised to become the face of Downing Street’s first US-style televised press briefings, was the cause of the power struggle that erupted. 

    After her appointment, she insisted she would be answerable to the PM only, not Cain. With the former Daily Mirror journalist fearing he was about to be side-lined, Boris offered him the role of chief of staff.

    That’s when Stratton and her allies stepped in, determined to prevent that happening.

    Stratton is a respected former journalist for the Guardian and ITV among others, and helped Chancellor Rishi Sunak craft his public image before being poached by No10. 

    Stratton is a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite who was educated at Latymer Upper School in London (fees, £21,000 a year) and studied anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge. She is married to James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator.

    Interestingly, while Cain has been mocked for dressing as a chicken to stalk former Tory leader David Cameron in the 2010 election, footage has recently emerged of Stratton also dressed as one, dancing at a high-spirited Westminster party where veteran political pundit Andrew Neil led the conga. 

    Munira Mirza is the phenomenally-bright head of No10's Policy Unit

    Munira Mirza is the phenomenally-bright head of No10’s Policy Unit 

    Munira Mirza

    Age: 42

    Official title: Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit

    Munira Mirza is the highly respected and phenomenally bright head of the Downing Street policy unit. 

    A long-time Boris aide dating back to his time as London mayor, she prefers to work away from the limelight, but is also said to have made her opposition to Cain’s appointment clear. 

    The Oldham-born academic is a popular figure around No10. ‘She has a huge brain but wears it lightly. Boris listens to her,’ according to one source.

    Mirza’s family came to Britain from Pakistan, with her father finding work as a factory while her mother taught Urdu part time. 

    She attended Breeze High School and Oldham Sixth Form College, where she was the only pupil to gain a place at Oxford, where she  studied English Literature. 

    A former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Mirza is now one of the members in Johnson’s circle, and was named by the PM as one of the five women who have shaped his life.  

    Priti Patel became frustrated at Cain's constant presence at her 'private' meetings with the PM

    Priti Patel became frustrated at Cain’s constant presence at her ‘private’ meetings with the PM

    Priti Patel

    Age: 48

    Official title: Home Secretary 

    Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, worked closely with Cain when he was director of communications at Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum. But she has become frustrated by his constant presence at her ‘private’ meetings with the PM and went on to oppose his appointment. 

    The Essex MP – who was once an outspoken proponent of the death penalty – was a member of Theresa May’s Cabinet before she had to resign over secret meetings with Israeli officials, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    The 47-year-old Brexiteer became infamous in 2011 when she called for hanging to be reintroduced during her first appearance on Question Time, calling capital punishment a ‘deterrent’.  

    Patel’s Ugandan-Indian family arrived penniless in Britain in 1972. They were forced to abandon a fortune in tea and coffee plantations as they fled the military dictator Idi Amin.

    Her father, Sushil – which is also her middle name – ditched plans to go to university and opened a corner shop in Tottenham, North London, with his wife Anjana and his parents. Patel, a mother of one who has been married to marketing consultant Alex Sawyer since 2004, lived above the shop and worked most mornings behind the counter before school. 

    She was educated at a comprehensive school in Watford, joined the Tory party at 17 and studied economics at Keele University. She was later a policy adviser at drinks multinational Diageo and a lobbyist for cigarette companies before joining the Conservative Party and being picked for a safe seat in 2010.  

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    The former Mirror chicken who became one of Downing Street’s biggest beasts 

    Lee Cain is one of Mr Johnson’s most trusted advisers, having been by his side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work with him at the Foreign Office. When Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018, Mr Cain continued working with him.

    He then helped run his leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications. The two men also worked together during the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Mr Cain was a press officer at the Vote Leave campaign masterminded by Mr Cummings and led by Mr Johnson and Michael Gove.

    His promotion to chief of staff would raise concerns among some Tory MPs that the Vote Leave operation is tightening its grip on the heart of Government.

    It would also be controversial with some elements of the media who have been bruised by Mr Cain’s uncompromising style.

    Last year he ordered ministers to boycott BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because of perceived bias. The ban was only lifted when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

    Mr Cain has also imposed a boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain that has lasted for more than six months. 

    Mr Cain, who grew up on the fringes of Liverpool, has developed a reputation as an ardent Brexiteer and helped forge Mr Johnson’s tough stance last year which saw him controversially prorogue parliament in an attempt to prevent pro-Remain MPs blocking a no-deal departure. 

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    Leading Tory backbenchers said there had been long-standing concerns about the Downing Street operation.

    Sir Charles Walker, vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think there has been unhappiness about the Number 10 operation for some time.

    ‘Members of Parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process, and that’s no secret.

    ‘The real opportunity here is for the chief of staff position to be filled by someone who has good links with the Conservative Party and its representation in the House of Commons.’

    Former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry – a long-term ally of Mr Johnson who fell out of favour earlier this year – said the PM Johnson was ‘stamping his Johnsonian authority’ on Downing Street.

    The Rossendale and Darwen MP told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘The departure of Lee Cain does show, I think, that the Prime Minister is taking back control of his government.

    ‘He’s moving from a campaigning operation to an operation solely focused on good government. I think it’s a good move for the Prime Minister.

    ‘As we go past that grim milestone, as you say, of 50,000 deaths from this appalling disease, it’s high time, I think, that there was a bit of a change of guard in Number 10.’

    Asked about Ms Symonds being opposed to Mr Cain’s promotion, Mr Berry said: ‘I have been in touch with people in the building, that’s not actually completely my understanding of what has happened.’

    He said Mr Johnson had a ‘renewed sense of mission’, adding: ‘I think this is a good sign that he is moving away from just being a campaigning government, coming out of the general election, and then the Covid crisis, and really stamping his Johnsonian authority across the Number 10 operation.’

    Guto Harri, who worked with Mr Johnson at City Hall, said it was an opportunity for a ‘reset’ to when he was one of the most popular politicians in the country.

    ‘It’s a chance for a government that is more professional… and far less aggressive and tribal than it has been.’ 

    But Sir Keir Starmer seized on the chaos, telling LBC radio that the country would be ‘scratching their heads’.

    ‘This is pathetic. I think millions of people will be waking up this morning, scratching their heads, saying what on earth is going on?’ he said.

    ‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re all worried about our health and our families, we’re all worried about our jobs, and this lot are squabbling behind the door of Number 10.

    ‘It’s pathetic. Pull yourselves together, focus on the job in hand.’

    The crisis had been brewing for weeks with Mr Cain fearing his role could be undermined by the arrival of Miss Stratton, who is due to start daily televised briefings on No10’s behalf in the new year.

    And tensions were already fraught in Downing Street after a leak bounced Mr Johnson into hastily announcing the second national lockdown.

    Responding to the news of power struggles within No10, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: ‘Pathetic and childish. In the middle of a pandemic, when a few hours ago we reached the tragic milestone of 50,000 deaths.

    ‘This absolute shower wouldn’t know governing in the national interest if it slapped them in the face.’  

    The appointment was also said to be opposed by other senior women in Downing Street, including Mr Johnson's policy chief Munira Mirza and incoming press secretary Allegra Stratton (pictured with Mr Cain)

    The appointment was also said to be opposed by other senior women in Downing Street, including Mr Johnson’s policy chief Munira Mirza and incoming press secretary Allegra Stratton (pictured with Mr Cain)

    Cain is a former journalist who used to dress up as the Daily Mirror's election chicken, pursuing David Cameron and other leading Tories during the 2010 campaign

    Cain is a former journalist who used to dress up as the Daily Mirror’s election chicken, pursuing David Cameron and other leading Tories during the 2010 campaign

    Mr Cain is one of Mr Johnson’s most trusted advisers, having been by his side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work with him at the Foreign Office. 

    When Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018, Mr Cain continued working with him.

    He then helped run his leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications. 

    The two men also worked together during the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Mr Cain was a press officer at the Vote Leave campaign masterminded by Mr Cummings and led by Mr Johnson and Michael Gove. 

    Mr Cain will serve until the end of the year when he will be replaced by the PM's official spokesman, James Slack (pictured)

    Mr Cain will serve until the end of the year when he will be replaced by the PM’s official spokesman, James Slack (pictured)

    Last year he ordered ministers to boycott BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because of perceived bias. The ban was only lifted when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

    Mr Cain has also imposed a boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain that has lasted for more than six months.

    This year he sparked a walkout by political journalists after he banned reporters from news outlets deemed unfriendly from attending a No10 briefing with officials.

    Mr Cain has developed a reputation as an ardent Brexiteer and helped forge Mr Johnson’s tough stance last year which saw him controversially prorogue parliament in an attempt to prevent pro-Remain MPs blocking a no-deal departure.

    But this year it emerged he saw the Vote Leave job as a route into politics rather than a vocation.

    A former colleague from his time as a journalist told PR Week: ‘He told me: ‘I just want to get into politics. I’ve applied for two jobs and I’ve got one of them.

    ‘I’ve applied for head of broadcast for Remain and head of broadcast for Leave. If this ever comes out I’ll be in a lot of trouble’.’

    ANDREW PIERCE: How the Carrie Symonds Crew beat the Boris bruiser in their game of chicken

    ByAndrew Pierce for the Daily Mail

    The country may be in the grip of the greatest threat since World War II, the death toll from Covid may have passed 50,000 – but Downing St is now focused on a crisis of its own making.

    Last night, Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications, sensationally quit after rashly deciding to take on a formidable quartet of Westminster’s most powerful women.

    While he was reportedly immediately replaced by the prime minister’s official spokesman James Slack, the after-shocks of his departure will continue to reverberate for some time to come.

    The confrontation was sparked, ironically enough, by the PM himself. He was so fearful that the thuggish Cain was about to quit that he wanted to promote him to the White House-style role of chief of staff post to entice him to stay.

    Negotiations have been under way for several weeks but the news only emerged yesterday morning.

    And that’s when all hell broke loose and a rather unlikely ‘Downing Street sisterhood’ was mobilised. Leading the charge was Boris’s glamorous partner Carrie Symonds, a former head of communications for the Conservative Party, who is not a Cain fan.

    Leading the charge was Boris’s glamorous partner Carrie Symonds, a former head of communications for the Conservative Party, who is not a Cain fan

    Leading the charge was Boris’s glamorous partner Carrie Symonds, a former head of communications for the Conservative Party, who is not a Cain fan

    With Carrie, arguably the most influential PM’s spouse in modern political times, lined up against Cain, there was only ever going to be one outcome. Carrie also had Home Secretary Priti Patel, 48, the most senior woman in the Cabinet, on her side, along with Munira Mirza, 42, the highly respected and phenomenally bright head of the Downing Street policy unit.

    Meanwhile, Allegra Stratton, 39, the former journalist poised to become the face of Downing Street’s first televised press briefings – again shades of the West Wing – was the cause of the power struggle that has erupted.

    No10’s key players and their convenient connections

    Boris Johnson’s Government apparatus is intertwined with various parts of the Tory media and establishment through marriage and experience. 

    Dominic Cummings, the PM’s shadowy Svengali worked with Lee Cain as he led the Vote Leave campaign to victory in the 2016 referendum, before they were both asked to join Mr Johnson’s new administration in Downing Street.

    Mr Cummings is also married to Mary Wakefield, a senior journalist with the Spectator Magazine, a Tory bible that Boris Johnson once edited. 

    The incoming No10 Press Secretary Allegra Stratton is a respected former journalist for the Guardian and ITV among others. But she is also married to James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator.

    Elsewhere Dido Harding, the Tory peer who has faced much criticism after being brought in to run Test and Trace, has been married to Tory MP and former minister John Penrose for 25 years.

    And current Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman is married to Kate Bingham, who was appointed  chairwoman of the UK vaccines taskforce in May. 

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    After her appointment, she insisted she would be answerable to the PM only, not Mr Cain –who happens to be an ally of Boris’s top aide, Dominic Cummings.

    With Cain fearing he was about to be side-lined, Boris offered him the prestigious new post.

    And that’s where the quartet stepped in, determined to prevent that happening.

    But while the decision to hold a stand-off in such a time of crisis is remarkable, it is the sudden emergence of Symonds as a force to be reckoned with that has truly astonished Westminster.

    ‘This is like something out of a soap opera,’ said one frustrated Tory MP last night. For some weeks now, the PM, encouraged by many senior Tory MPs, has been mulling over the idea of a chief of staff to help bring some order to the chaos that has seemed to permeate No10’s operations.

    Yet after it emerged Cain was a frontrunner, the very same MPs responded with uproar. In his role as head of communications, Cain is held responsible for the widely- held view that this government always reacts to, but never controls, events.

    Boris was taken aback by the sheer level of opposition to the Cain appointment from ministers, backbench MPs and advisers.

    Yet he cannot have been surprised by the opposition from Carrie – friction between her and Cain is nothing new. In June last year, when Carrie and Boris had a domestic dispute in their London home, which was secretly taped and leaked to The Guardian, Cain handled the media fallout.

    But he was enraged to learn that Carrie – or her pals – had taken matters into their own hands. A photograph was leaked to the Press that was designed to show the couple had kissed and made up.

    However it soon emerged that the shot was taken long before the row, leading to more damaging headlines. Relations between Symonds and Cain never recovered.

    Carrie’s involvement only became clear yesterday after Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, claimed that since she was opposed to the appointment, ‘it might not happen’. Then she tweeted: ‘Two Tory sources confirm Cain was offered job by PM at weekend after talking about it for few weeks; PM’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, however, said to be deeply unhappy about the plan; Not now clear what outcome will be.’

    It was Kuenssberg too who broke the news that Munira Mirza and Allegra Stratton were also opposed to Cain.

    A Westminster source explained: ‘Sorry if this sounds sexist, but the women swapped notes to kill this off. Cain never had a chance against those four.’

    One influential figure Cain had on his side was Dominic Cummings. A former Cabinet minister said last night: ‘Lee is one hundred per cent a creature of Dominic Cummings. If he got the [chief of staff] job, it would have been more power for Cummings and more of the chaos of the last year.’

    Meanwhile, for many Westminster watchers, the high level of opposition to Cain is underlined by the fact Munira Mirza allowed her objections to become known.

    Mirza, a long-time Boris aide dating back to his time as London mayor, prefers to work away from the limelight.

    The Oldham-born, Oxford-educated academic is a popular figure around No10. ‘She has a huge brain but wears it lightly. Boris listens to her,’ according to one source.

    File photo shows Conservative Party leader David Cameron walking around Tamworth in Staffordshire followed by Lee Cain dressed as a chicken, working for the Daily Mirror newspaper

    File photo shows Conservative Party leader David Cameron walking around Tamworth in Staffordshire followed by Lee Cain dressed as a chicken, working for the Daily Mirror newspaper

    So why was she opposed to Cain? ‘She never thought he was up to it,’ said another source.

    For her part, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, worked closely with Cain when he was director of communications at Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum.

    But she has become frustrated by his constant presence at her ‘private’ meetings with the PM.

    And yet it seems that Boris Johnson was prepared to risk a rift with his partner, and his three most senior female allies, because he couldn’t bear to lose Cain. ‘[Boris] regards Lee as his man on earth,’ said an ally speaking before Cain quit. Ironically, with Cain seen off by Carrie & Co he only had himself to blame. It was, after all, Cain who persuaded Boris, in the teeth of opposition from Cabinet ministers, to appoint a woman journalist to do the televised Downing St briefings.

    His joy at Boris’s acquiescence was short lived, when the PM poached Allegra Stratton from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s team.

    For ultimately, the pair are chalk and cheese. Cain, 38, who sports a heavy morning shadow and likes to relax watching boxing on TV, is a comprehensive school boy from Ormskirk in Merseyside.

    Stratton is a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite who was educated at Latymer Upper School in London (fees, £21,000 a year) and studied anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge.

    The daily Downing St press briefings will launch in January when, according to a former minister: ‘Allegra will become a household name and would have eclipsed Lee who would have been toiling behind the scenes. It’s why he was threatening to leave.’

    Interestingly, while Cain has been mocked for dressing as a chicken to stalk former Tory leader David Cameron in the 2010 election, footage has recently emerged of Stratton also dressed as one, dancing at a high-spirited Westminster party where veteran political pundit Andrew Neil led the conga.

    It’s a fact of nature that chickens fight to the death to establish a pecking order. And in this particular case there is no doubt of the victor: Carrie and her quartet.

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