Almost a year ago, Boris Johnson threw a big party in Downing Street for his staff and the press. It was billed as the prime minister’s annual Christmas drinks but there were many more reasons for good cheer inside No 10.
Johnson had just won a stunning general election victory the week before, securing an 80-strong parliamentary majority, and he was still on cloud nine. So, too, were former leading lights of the Vote Leave team who had delivered Brexit for Johnson, then played key roles in the election win. These advisers, whom the prime minister had brought into No 10 after Theresa May’s departure, knew they had real power at last, in the form of a thumping mandate delivered by the people.
As the guests crammed in, the man hailed by many Tories as a campaigning and strategic genius behind both Brexit and the election triumph, Dominic Cummings, leaned against a table and held court with journalists. The wine flowed. Johnson swept in and made a jokey, triumphal speech from a stage before departing through a crowd saying “thank you, thank you” while waving his arm, as if he were a Roman emperor. Other Vote Leavers who had been installed at the heart of power kept proud watch over the PM as he made his exit, including director of communications Lee Cain and Robert Oxley from the the press department, while Cleo Watson from the private office and Oliver Lewis, both formerly of Vote Leave, also enjoyed the moment.
On Friday, however, just 11 turbulent months since the general election win, the optimism and joy of the early post-election days in No 10 had given way to bitterness and acrimony on a tragic scale. After days of extraordinarily vicious infighting into which Johnson’s own fiancee Carrie Symonds had been drawn, the prime minister summoned the two biggest beasts of his former Vote Leave team – Cummings and Cain – to a meeting to tell them in no uncertain terms the party was over.
Both men had already announced in the previous 24 hours that they were resigning and would leave soon after an unseemly power struggle over jobs, access to the PM, and influence that they feared was slipping away from them. But by late on Friday feelings were running so high that Johnson wanted them out not in days or weeks but within the hour – to clear their desks and go.
Accounts of the 45-minute meeting differ but what is certain is that the PM had become incensed by their behaviour over the previous few days, was furious at leaks from No 10 of key announcements on Covid-19 that he had wanted to make himself, and was enraged by the way his wife-to-be was being briefed against on social media and elsewhere by people linked to the Vote Leave brigade.
Over the previous 48-hours Symonds, who had long taken exception to Cain’s brutal style and Cummings’s abrasive, wild ways, was said to have worked hard on Johnson to block Cain’s appointment to a new role of chief of staff, triggering the director of communications’ resignation followed by that of his ally, Cummings.
As the Friday evening meeting began, some say Johnson was barely able to contain his rage as he confronted the two men, and that he showed them texts that he said proved they had briefed against Symonds. Cain and Cummings deny this and say it was a calm meeting and that they accepted why the PM wanted to see the back of them.
Another senior No 10 source said yesterday that it was “overdoing it” to say that the PM had pointed directly to texts about Symonds, “but he did confront them forcefully about leaks and made clear he was angry”. When Cummings later walked out of the front door of No 10 in full view of the TV cameras, carrying a large box of his papers, government advisers present and past, MPs and ministers all struggled to comprehend the scale of the explosion that had just happened. “I thought Lee would go but I didn’t expect Dom to blow himself up too,” said one.
If these were ordinary times, then the loss of two aides, one of whom few outside Westminster had ever heard of before last week, would have been easy to move on from.
But these are not ordinary times. Downing Street was in meltdown, officials were turning to drink and some were in tears, at a time of national crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic was still raging, and deaths were rising again at alarming rates with the country a week into a second lockdown. Brexit talks on a free trade deal were on the brink of collapse at the very moment the country and the economy could least afford a no-deal outcome. No 10 and the Foreign Office were trying to reset relations with the US after Joe Biden’s election win – no small task, given the president-elect’s antipathy to Brexit and fears for its effects on the Irish peace process. Johnson was also planning a major green speech but was still at odds with the Treasury over the scale of any financial commitments he could make days before he was set to make it. Yet the media headlines were all about the war in Downing Street.
One very senior Tory MP who had been planning on Friday evening to issue a grand healing statement on how to repair the damage and mend relations with MPs who had long felt ignored by the Cummings-led No 10 operation, abandoned his plan, saying he daren’t go anywhere near the hornets’ nest of Downing Street. “It’s gone crazy. I’m keeping quiet for now,” he said.
Many with bitter experiences on the inside of government in recent times said the way Vote Leave people were going for Symonds was shocking, even by their standards. “It is unbelievable that they did not see how attacking the PM’s fiancee would backfire on them. All this stuff about her being the First Lady of Downing Street,” said one ex-adviser who had recently been sacked by Cain. “And they are saying how undemocratic it is her wielding power. What do they know about democracy? They are just thugs. It is vile, pathetic, schoolboy shit.” A former cabinet minister who still has the prime minister’s ear summed up the conflicted feelings of many in the parliamentary party on Friday night: “Obviously it is a source of celebration that we have got rid of such unpleasant people but I do worry about the damage that has been done.” Another former minister asked: “How did we allow these people to rule the roost in the first place? What does that say about certain people’s judgement? With everything that is going on, all this is the last thing we need.”
The roots of the immediate crisis go back many weeks, even months. Since the summer, and as big announcements on Covid-19 were being made without No 10 choosing to consult MPs, senior Tories had asked Johnson to rein in Cummings and his allies and stop what they called “government by diktat”. But while the prime minister listened, he did not fully heed the requests. Cummings had already declared war on the civil service. Now he was bypassing parliament and being allowed to get away with it.
But at the beginning of September, something shifted. Johnson began to feel, and show, his own frustrations. After a session of prime minister’s questions in which the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle demanded that the PM withdraw comments he had made about Labour leader Keir Starmer and the IRA, Johnson blew fuses both outside the Commons chamber and when he returned to No 10, accusing his aides of leaving him appallingly unprepared at the despatch box. During the same period Johnson was also growing increasingly angry at the number of leaks from the heart of government, particularly over policy on Covid-19. Friends of Symonds say she, too, was urging the PM to put his foot down and control the leakers and disrupters.
These festering tensions deepened when the Times revealed a fortnight ago that there was to be a second lockdown within days. Johnson had wanted to keep the announcement under wraps and tell the country and parliament himself. He feared that early disclosure could lead people to gather together for one last un-socially distanced hurrah, with disastrous consequences. As the leaks continued, insiders say the PM began to suspect forces inside Downing Street – his own people – were doing the leaking themselves.
“I know for sure it was the leaks that changed things. Boris had fucking well had enough,” said a senior Tory MP with the prime minister’s ear. Then came more. In the early part of last week, No 10 sources briefed the Times that Cain was about to be promoted to a job as chief of staff in Downing Street. Cain was known to have been angered that Johnson had given the new role of press secretary with responsibility for fronting up daily briefings to Allegra Stratton, a former Guardian and TV journalist with liberal inclinations, rather than to one of his preferred choices. Cain is said to have feared Stratton would have greater access to the PM than he would, and wanted the chief of staff role to cement his power base.
After the Times story broke, however, all hell broke loose as Symonds, Stratton and others inside No 10, including head of the policy unit Munira Mirza ,all made clear to Johnson their opposition to Cain getting the role. Amid extraordinary levels of intrigue and confusion, it then emerged that the offer – if it was ever definitively made by Johnson – had been withdrawn. Sources say the true story is “complex” and that the offer was not “nailed on”. Cain resigned and Cummings threw tantrums. “Dom threw his toys out of the pram and threatened to go,” said one source.
Then on Thursday evening, Cummings did resign. To add to the sense of chaos and plotting, MPs and advisers then began to put it around that Cain had in fact briefed the Times himself, saying that he had been offered the job of chief of staff before it was definite, in order to bounce the prime minister into giving it to him.
“That is how they have always operate,” said an MP. “They did it at Vote Leave. They leak stuff to get it announced. Then they blame others for it. It is the way they work. That is what it looks like this time too.”
Cain denies this. In a meeting on Thursday evening, Cummings had tried to rescue the situation before deciding what to do himself – by suggesting that the prime minister should appoint Cleo Watson, one of his Vote Leave allies, to the chief of staff role. Johnson refused in a tense encounter. The ground was falling away from beneath the Vote Leave grouping and even from beneath Cummings.
There are plenty in the Tory party who this weekend are trying to see the bright side, to view the demise of Cummings and Cain and the eruptions of last week as a turning point, one that will allow Johnson to move into a calmer, more collegiate phase of his government. Writing in the Observer, the MP and vice chair of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, Charles Walker is savage about the “fractious macho culture” that had prevailed too long under Cummings and Cain and the “impenetrable iron curtain” they erected around the PM to shield him from his MPs. With them gone, Walker writes, there is now a “fantastic opportunity” for greater harmony and better relations.
The former cabinet minister Damian Green told the Observer that Johnson should now return to where he was most comfortable, on the One Nation wing of the party. “Boris has always wanted to be a One Nation prime minister so this is a good time to reset the priorities,” he said. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the defence select committee, said Biden’s win in the US presented “an opportunity for Britain that’s yet to be fully appreciated” and that upgrading the UK’s defence capabilities and securing a Brexit deal had to be part of that process of re-projecting the UK on the world stage. “First and foremost we must secure an EU deal, for without it we have little chance of being in the room,” Ellwood said.
But hope is one thing – realising it is another entirely. There are also many pessimistic Tories who say that the fact that Johnson allowed Cummings and his gang to occupy such positions of power in the first place, against the advice of many, and then the way he resisted pressure for so long to rein them in, shows a fundamental lack of judgment on the prime minister’s part that does not bode well. “It is not that he was not warned,” said one senior Tory MP. “Cummings was always an accident waiting to happen on a grand scale,” said another MP. “We were all just waiting for the day.”
Cummings’s past should have been the guide, Johnson’s critics say. Yes, he had provided a brilliant campaign strategist in both the Brexit referendum of 2016 and the 2019 general election. But planting him at the heart of government was a mistake, most Tories would now admit, even Brexiteers. Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader, says Cummings had good ideas, including on reform of the civil service. “But he did not need to go to war with the whole of Whitehall,” he said.
Constant war, constant revolution is, however, all Cummings seems to know. Duncan Smith had to get rid of him as an adviser when he was leader because he was so disruptive. David Cameron’s early head of communications, Andy Coulson, banned Cummings from becoming a special adviser because he thought he was a liability. When Coulson left and Michael Gove employed Cummings it was not long before Cummings was sending emails to others in government saying how ineffective Cameron was as prime minister. Cameron called him a “career psychopath”. The evidence was there for all to see to that Cummings would bring turbulence as well as strategic guile and ideas, but Johnson still planted him and his acolytes at the heart of his operation – with what many believe were inevitable results.
This weekend Johnson has remained in Downing Street as recriminations continue. They have reached extraordinary levels even by the standards of Cummings.
Stratton, say friends, spent yesterday morning in tears after what she said were savage briefings against her by Cummings and Cain and their friends, who she insists have been saying she was not the first choice for the job. Stratton counters saying she may not have been “their” first choice but that the PM asked her eight times to take the job. Johnson is said to be determined to use this crisis to turn a corner. He is preparing to carry out a reshuffle of both his cabinet and his No 10 team in January, or in the words of one senior adviser “maybe earlier”.
What Cummings does next is less clear – but whatever it is could have a profound effect on Johnson’s premiership. Will he publicly turn on the prime minister, revealing secrets from the heart of the government’s coronavirus response? And will he turn his loyalties back to Gove, with whom he had the closest relationship in government?