What a way to run a country! The hatreds, tears and tantrums behind the ousting of Dominic Cummings revealed – and the ‘victory party’ thrown by Carrie Symonds to celebrate
- Allies of PM’s former aide Dominic Cummings claim ‘victory party’ was thrown
- Johnson said to have rebuked Cummings after calling Carrie ‘Princess Nut Nut’
- Claims that Prime Minister’s fiancee has had a vendetta against Mr Cain
Just hours after Dominic Cummings had left No 10 on Friday afternoon, his few allies who remained in the building claim that they heard the distinctive strains of a ‘victory party’ from the Downing Street flat inhabited by Carrie Symonds.
Ms Symonds’ friends deny that there was a ‘boisterous celebration’ – the latest in a vicious cycle of claim, denial and counter-claim by the warring factions – but there can be little doubt that Boris Johnson’s fiancee has emerged triumphant in the extraordinary power struggle she has waged with the adviser and Lee Cain, Mr Cummings’ Vote Leave ally.
It culminated with Mr Cummings carrying out his belongings in a cardboard box, following a final meeting in which Mr Johnson is said to have rebuked the two aides for describing Ms Symonds as ‘Princess Nut Nut’ – something else which is denied by No 10.
It culminated with Mr Cummings carrying out his belongings in a cardboard box (pictured), following a final meeting in which Mr Johnson is said to have rebuked the two aides for describing Ms Symonds as ‘Princess Nut Nut’
What no one disputes is that the mutual loathing between the Vote Leave faction and ‘Carrie’s gang’ spilled out last week in an extraordinarily toxic manner, one which could have lasting implications for Mr Johnson’s grip on power.
The tensions started to come to the boil three weeks ago, in the wake of a seemingly convivial dinner at the Prime Minister’s official Chequers country estate, when Mr Johnson invited Mr Cain to set out his vision for a ‘reset’ of the No 10 operation after months of rows, U-turns and political drift.
Mr Cain – the now former No 10 director of communications, who has been a key consigliere since the Prime Minister’s days in the Westminster wilderness – was effectively auditioning for a new role as Mr Johnson’s chief of staff.
It was part of an attempt to defuse the unintended consequences of Mr Cain’s decision to appoint a new public face for his press operation.
The chemistry between Mr Cain and the successful candidate, Allegra Stratton, was – both camps agree – atrocious, and soon led to resignation threats from both of them.
The seeds of Mr Cain’s destruction had been sown during another Chequers social occasion, at the end of the summer, when Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds hosted drinks for Ms Stratton, who at that stage was working as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications.
During the dinner, which was also attended by Mr Sunak, Mr Johnson turned to Ms Stratton and said: ‘Come and be my spokesperson, you would be great. Obviously there has to be a process – but I want you.’
According to members of Mr Cummings’ Vote Leave cabal, the event was ‘matchmaking’ by Ms Symonds, who was keen for Ms Stratton to represent the Government at daily televised press conferences.
Carrie’s friends deny that there was a ‘boisterous celebration’ but there can be little doubt that Boris Johnson’s fiancee has emerged triumphant in the extraordinary power struggle she has waged with Mr Cummings and Lee Cain. Pictured: The Prime Minister and fiancee Carrie Symonds in March
If so, it worked: after being bombarded with calls by Mr Johnson, Ms Stratton applied, won the job and is set to make her debut in January.
But soon after her appointment, Ms Stratton started clashing repeatedly with Mr Cain and Mr Cummings over how much access she could secure to Mr Johnson.
Mr Cain’s Chequers performance initially appeared to have gone well for him: both Ms Symonds and Mr Johnson seeming to react warmly to his ideas.
However, by the time they had all returned to Downing Street on Monday morning, those ideas had been mysteriously shredded – and the fuse had been lit on a row about the influence which Ms Symonds exerts over the Prime Minister.
Allies of Mr Cummings and Mr Cain say that Ms Symonds has had a vendetta against Mr Cain since she applied for the job of special adviser to Mr Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary, but before she was romantically involved with him.
She lost out in the job to Mr Cain. They claim that Ms Symonds ‘interferes’ extensively in the running of the Government, calling No 10’s private office up to 20 times a day, and texting Mr Johnson up to 25 times an hour over policy issues – usually ones related to her interest in the environment.
And they believe that Ms Symonds uses journalistic contacts established during her time as the Tory Party’s director of communications to manipulate the agenda in her interests, ignoring Mr Johnson’s request for her to stop running a ‘parallel briefing operation’.
Friends of Ms Symonds hit back by describing the focus on her role as ‘sexist’ and ‘rank misogyny’, and saying that it is normal for partners to ask each other for advice – ‘particularly when that partner is, like Carrie, an experienced political operator’.
Allies of Mr Cummings and Mr Cain say that Ms Symonds has had a vendetta against Mr Cain (pictured) since she applied for the job of special adviser to Mr Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary
According to one Government source the faultline at the heart of No 10 was like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: ‘The reactor was always unstable, it was just a question of when the meltdown came’.
The flashpoint was the selection of Ms Stratton, an experienced broadcaster who fought off competition from BBC journalist Ellie Price to be handed the distinctly poisoned chalice of defending the Government on live television.
Mr Cain argued that Ms Price had performed more calmly and professionally during the mock press conference which formed part of the interview process: he also said that focus groups had concluded that Ms Stratton was ‘aggressive’ and ‘divisive’.
Ms Stratton’s critics have, in addition, questioned her dedication to the party, citing the fact that she was offered a job with Labour’s David Miliband when he was in government, and her former membership of the local Liberal Democrat party in Hampstead, North London.
Ms Stratton answered the criticisms by saying that she had voted for Brexit, and for the Tory Party in the last two General Elections.
During her clashes with Mr Cain and Mr Cummings, Ms Stratton declined the offer of a deputy to support her, fearing that it amounted to a backdoor attempt to control her.
Mr Cain’s friends say that ‘every time Lee had these tussles’ Ms Stratton would ‘pop upstairs for a cosy drink with Carrie in the flat and deploy her to win her battle’.
Friends of Ms Stratton deny this, saying that she ‘came to her own conclusions’ about the remit and viability of the restrictions placed on her; they add that she has been left ‘very upset’ by the events of the past three weeks, and is sorry to see the departure of Mr Cain and Mr Cummings.
The chemistry between Mr Cain and the successful candidate, Allegra Stratton (pictured), was – both camps agree – atrocious, and soon led to resignation threats from both of them
Mr Cain’s friends also believe that he has been the victim of snobbery, with the privately educated, Cambridge graduate Ms Stratton favoured by Ms Symonds over the Ormskirk-born, comprehensive-schooled boxing fan.
The friends say that Mr Cain became ‘hardened’ to it, with one Cabinet Minister telling him that a national newspaper editor has described him as ‘an oik’ who ‘shouldn’t be in Downing Street’.
Tensions started to ratchet up after details of this month’s lockdown were leaked before Mr Johnson had made the final decision to order it. Suspicion swirled around No 10, after a Government source told The Mail on Sunday that a ‘chatty rat’ who backed a lockdown was responsible.
After ‘doveish’ Health Secretary Matt Hancock furiously denied that he was responsible, the attention shifted to Mr Cummings and Mr Cain. After they, too, were ruled out, sources started pointing the finger at advisers working for Michael Gove, a lockdown dove. Their involvement is also strenuously denied.
Then, last weekend, according to Mr Cain’s friends, the Prime Minister offered him the chief of staff job over Sunday lunch at Downing Street, in an effort to stop him walking out over his clashes with Ms Stratton.
Mr Gove’s advisers are blamed by the friends for then joining forces with Ms Symonds to sabotage the appointment, briefing the details about Mr Cain’s job discussions to Tuesday’s newspapers.
But members of Carrie’s gang blame Mr Cummings, accusing him of trying to ‘bounce’ Mr Johnson into offering the job.
Complicating the situation even further was the collapse of the once close friendship between Mr Cummings and Mr Gove (pictured), which has grown distant during the coronavirus crisis
When Mr Cain resigned last week in the wake of the furore, one adviser to Mr Gove wrote on his WhatsApp group: ‘Phew!’
Complicating the situation even further was the collapse of the once close friendship between Mr Cummings and Mr Gove, which has grown distant during the coronavirus crisis. It meant that Mr Johnson could lose Mr Cummings from his operation without also incurring the threatening displeasure of Mr Gove.
One of the main reasons cited by Ms Symonds for her opposition to Mr Cain was what her friends describe as the ‘macho culture’ he is alleged to have allowed to flourish in No 10: ‘Hard-drinking, sexist and inappropriate,’ in the words of one.
Mr Cain says the claims are part of a ‘smear operation’.
What does seem clear is that the trust between Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings was fatally eroded by the Castle Barnard furore, when Mr Cummings travelled to the North East during the first lockdown and driven around, he claims, to ‘test his eyesight’.
Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings have increasingly disagreed over policy – such as HS2, which Mr Cummings regarded as ‘a disaster zone’ – and the Prime Minister’s irritation at the fact that special advisers appeared to feel more in thrall to Mr Cummings than to himself.
Incidents such as Mr Cummings marching Sonia Khan, a special adviser to former Chancellor Sajid Javid, out of Downing Street after accusing her of leaking to the media, dismayed Mr Johhson, with Mr Cummings refusing Mr Johnson’s request for him to settle the case: a six-figure payout to Ms Khan last week over the case was seen as another sign of Mr Cummings’ waning influence.
One of the main reasons cited by Ms Symonds for her opposition to Mr Cain was what her friends describe as the ‘macho culture’ he is alleged to have allowed to flourish in No 10. Pictured: Carrie Symonds and Boris Johnson thank the NHS frontline heroes
Friends of Ms Symonds say that she has ‘no regrets’ about opposing Mr Cain’s appointment and thinks that ‘a more diverse group of voices’ should advise the Prime Minister. They say her professional experience mean she was well-qualified to share her view.
One told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Surely it is in the Prime Minister’s interest that he hears from a range of people. That’s the way to have a fairer and more successful operation.
‘What man wouldn’t ask their informed partner for their opinion on something to do with work, particularly when it is a world they have known for many, many years.
‘If you see something that needs altering why wouldn’t you say so? To think the Prime Minister can’t make his own mind up is silly.’
The friends describe the attacks on her as sexist.
‘The idea that she is a woman and therefore shouldn’t have a voice is unfair,’ said one. ‘The vitriol and bitterness towards her has been quite something, chances are they would not happen to a man.
‘It is saddening to see that she is being attacked for having a view. Downing Street has been devoid of senior women and the more rounded opinions which they offer.’