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What is going on in Downing Street?

By Gareth Jones
12 November 2020

By Gareth Jones

The political news today has been dominated by the resignation of Lee Cain, the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications. The Prime Minister’s aide quit in dramatic circumstances last night amid some incendiary briefings in the media about a power struggle taking place within Number 10. According to reports, following some recent changes in personnel in 10 Downing Street (including the announcement last month of Allegra Stratton as the new press secretary), Mr Cain had been pushing himself to be promoted and be appointed Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, thereby maintaining significant control over the Downing Street operation. This news prompted a significant amount of backlash among Conservative ministers and MPs, who widely regard Mr Cain as a divisive figure. In turn led – allegedly – to an ultimatum given by Mr Cain to the Prime Minister that unless he was given the chief of staff role, he would quit. And as it transpired, the Prime Minister was clear he would not be forced into making such an appointment and allowed Mr Cain to leave the government.

For most of those outside the Westminster Village, this news may seem like a slightly obscure soap opera and it’s not immediately clear why any of this matters and what, if any, are the implications. After all, unlike his close friend and ally, Dominic Cummings, Cain is not a household name and it is fairly normal for political advisers to come and go. 

It is clear, however, that this move is clearly significant and could have implications down the line. Firstly, Number 10 advisers wield significant power in government – arguably more so than many of the ministers in the cabinet. This is especially true at the moment, given the highly centralised nature of Boris Johnson’s administration (underlined by developments such as making all departmental special advisers report to Number 10, rather than their ministers). This development is also clearly significant in terms of timing – as there are major decisions to be made by the government over its tackling of coronavirus and the future of post-Brexit trade with the EU. Although it is unclear, as yet, whether Mr Cain’s resignation as any direct relevance or consequence on either of those key issues.

The resignation also provides some indication about the factions and conflicts in Number 10. Mr Cain was part of Vote Leave team, along with Dominic Cummings and a significant number of other Number 10 advisers. This team, which has embedded itself at the heart of government, has clearly shown that it is highly effective at campaigning, as evidenced by last December’s election victory. However, some of the communications since then, around day-to-day governing and managing the pandemic, has been questionable at best – a recent example being the chaotic way in which the second lockdown was announced just over a week ago. Some of the conduct by Mr Cain and his colleagues has clearly been seen as divisive by the wider party and his attempt at a power grab may have been the final straw in a conflict that has been brewing for a while.

Ultimately, this all matters as it raises questions about the Prime Minister's ability to manage his own operation. Some have speculated that this may indeed be a positive move for Boris Johnson, as it allows to move on from the Vote Leave campaigning style of government communications and onto one that is more suited to the day-to-day challenges of governing.