With England in lockdown, the UK’s coronavirus death toll passing 50,000 and Brexit talks close to deadline, one could be forgiven for asking why the resignation of Lee Cain matters. At a difficult time, the departure of a No 10 aide few people had heard of has topped the news agenda.
It is tempting to dismiss Cain’s exit as a Westminster-bubble story, but it’s much more important than that. It’s about the future direction of Boris Johnson’s government – whom he listens to, and what he does. It is, fundamentally, about who governs Britain. Should Johnson’s government be a Vote Leave one that is focused on its new “red wall” voters, or should he change tack and usher in a new era of cuddly Conservativism?
Since Johnson entered Downing Street in July last year, he has been surrounded by former colleagues from the Vote Leave campaign. Cain is a longtime supporter of Johnson’s, having worked with him on the EU referendum campaign, in the Foreign Office, on his leadership campaign and from the day he entered Downing Street. Perhaps most importantly, Cain was with Johnson during his 10 months in the wilderness after he resigned as foreign secretary, a time when many Tory MPs were writing Johnson off. The pair sat together in the small office the whips had sent Johnson to, forging a close bond. They were seen as an odd pairing: a down-to-earth, state-school northerner and an Old Etonian classicist.
While many of Johnson’s supporters had expected his premiership to resemble a court with various factions competing for the prime minister’s ear, when he did finally make it into Downing Street a Vote Leave takeover began. Most notably, Dominic Cummings was brought in – but so were several others from the campaign. It has largely been Cummings and Cain holding the power in No 10.
However, in recent months there has been a shift. A global pandemic has put strain on the whole operation, a lot of goodwill has gone, and the mood has become much worse. “It’s like a Mexican firing squad in there,” one government adviser said. Added to this are tensions between Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, and his senior Vote Leave aides. Those close to her suggest she has different views on how the government should be communicating its message.
Last month’s appointment of Allegra Stratton as the Downing Street spokesperson – she is thought to favour a less combative media strategy – was viewed by some aides as a victory for Symonds over Cain, who had preferred other candidates.
Tensions between the various factions came to a head when news broke yesterday that Cain had been offered the No 10 chief of staff role. After a day of negative briefings against him, he stepped down.
Former ministers hope Cain’s departure marks the beginning of something much bigger – a reset of Johnson’s premiership. The argument goes that, after the transition period of the UK leaving the EU ends and the worst of the pandemic is out of the way, there will be a chance for Johnson to change the tone of his premiership. Rather than leading an aggressive government that picks fights – whether with the parliamentary press pack, the EU or the BBC – Johnson could pivot to a broader, One Nation approach. Supporters of such a plan point to his City Hall days as London mayor, when he had a reshuffle of staff early on. “We want the old Boris back,” says a Tory MP who backed him for the leadership. “This could be the beginning of that.”
They want more Vote Leave aides out, a cabinet reshuffle in the new year and an experienced old hand to be brought in as chief of staff. That reshuffle could be substantial. Discussing how to improve the operation, one close ally of the prime minister says he simply needs “a new party chairman, a new chief whip and new parliamentary private secretaries”. There’s also talk that the former chancellor Sajid Javid could come back – a way of showing the party that Johnson is moving beyond previous fallouts. Javid resigned after a clash with Cummings.
It is certainly true that had Cain been confirmed as chief of staff there would have been a backlash in the parliamentary party. “They’ve never even pretended to respect us,” says one Tory MP not sad to see the latest drama play out.
However, there are others who ask whether the events of the past 24 hours will have negative consequences in the long term. While Cain doesn’t have a big fan club, plenty of No 10 staff are fiercely loyal to him. After briefings about the leading Downing Street women who allegedly opposed his promotion, there are even whispers of a potential open letter among female staff in No 10 to show this is not a widely held view.
Cain’s supporters warn that MPs ought to be careful what they wish for. “Boris Johnson doesn’t trust many people; he does trust Lee, and he [Cain] had the ability to make decisions and get things done,” says a government aide. “It’s not clear who is going to do that in his absence.”
Is Johnson’s government about to chart a new course? Although some MPs already suggest this, while there are senior Vote Leave aides in the building such a claim is a little premature. “Never write these people off,” says a former adviser who has been at the sharp end of their antics. The battle for No 10 is only just beginning.
• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor