When Downing Street’s director of communications, Lee Cain, picked a fight with Lobby journalists only weeks after Boris Johnson was returned to power with a big majority, he signalled a shift in the Government’s media relations strategy. It appeared that the ‘new normal’ meant access to decision-makers was dependent on each media outlet’s political stance and its view on Brexit.
To exemplify the approach, in early February a group of political journalists arrived at Downing Street to attend a Government briefing – by Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, former diplomat David Frost – only to be divided into two groups in the foyer of Number 10.
Some, including correspondents for The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, were told they could stay, while Cain reportedly told others, such as journalists from The Mirror and the Independent, to leave the premises – prompting both groups, including broadcast journalists, to walk out collectively.
Cain’s decision was described as sinister, Orwellian – even Trumpian – and it prompted discomfort on both sides of the political divide.
But warnings of this new approach to media relations were there for all to see during the election campaign: refusing to field Johnson for a difficult interview with Andrew Neil on BBC TV, or put him up against other party leaders in November’s 'Channel Four News Climate Debate' – not to mention hiding him in a walk-in fridge to avoid speaking to Piers Morgan live on ITV’s 'Good Morning Britain'.
Following the Lobby clash, commentators predicted the imminent departure of the comms director, 38, who had been appointed in July and, to some observers, was simply a puppet of the real power in Downing Street: chief special adviser Dominic Cummings.
However, this may be a misreading of the power Cain wields in his own right. PRWeek spoke to several well-placed sources, who paint a more nuanced picture of the extent of his influence.
One of them points to Johnson’s brutal Cabinet reshuffle last month, during which the then-Chancellor, Sajid Javid, was, in effect, forced out of his job.
A Westminster source tells PRWeek: “It’s quite telling that Lee was one of five people in the room when Javid was sacked. They didn’t want Cummings in there, because he and Sajid hated each other, but Cain is very trusted and has a lot of power invested in him.”
For others, however, the level of access to the Prime Minister that Cain enjoys, along with his relative inexperience compared to his predecessors Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver and Andy Coulson, makes them deeply uneasy.
One former Downing Street insider says: “[Cain] was in the room for some of the conversations over the Cabinet reshuffle. It’s quite unorthodox because, in my mind, he has nowhere near the level of experience to be advising on decisions of that level. These are heavyweight decisions.”
When Gibb, Oliver and Coulson took up their jobs as former comms directors they had decades of experience under their belts, from editing newspapers to managing the political broadcast output of the BBC.
Cain is not in the same league, with just 10 years’ experience as a journalist behind him.
He began his career in local papers, starting out on the Leek Post and Times, before working for tabloids including The Mirror and The Sun as a shift reporter.
After a stint on 'This Morning', Cain briefly worked in PR – for Clarity, as a media relations specialist – before taking up a communications role at law firm Slater and Gordon.
From 2016 onwards Cain held political comms roles, including head of broadcast for Vote Leave, Spad to Johnson as Foreign Secretary, and director of comms for the ‘Back Boris’ campaign to elect Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party.
Cain, who grew up in Ormskirk, Lancashire, and attended the local school, is married to Nikki Barr, a former journalist who now works on Shell’s digital comms output.
One insider describes Cain’s persona as “a bit of a ‘cheeky chappie’” and a “wheeler-dealer”. There’s a clear sense that he revels in playing what in comedy circles is termed a ‘low-status’ character.
One source says: “Lee would say things like: ‘That’s above my pay grade.’ Well the joke is now, there is no one above your pay grade.”
Others describe Cain as a “fighter”, which chimes with his personal interest in boxing. “He loves fighting, he loves being in the trenches and he really enjoys an election campaign,” says another source.
However, the challenge for Cain could be the shift from being a “street fighter” to being responsible for the day-to-day delivery of the Government’s comms agenda.
His appointment has been the cause of both surprise and discomfort, among journalists as well as those who have worked within the Downing Street machine.
One former insider unfavourably compares Cain to his predecessors, referring to them as the “grown-ups”, adding: “I find it quite surprising that somebody with his level of experience has found themselves in this position, because it is probably one of the toughest jobs in the building.”
The unease about Cain’s level of experience even extends to journalists.
Tom Parry, a special correspondent for The Mirror, was a colleague of Cain’s when he was a night-shift reporter at the title about 10 years ago.
He says: “I was surprised [by his appointment], because my understanding is most of those people have come in at a fairly high level. They’ve got a background in the Lobby.”
Others who have worked with Cain are more complimentary, pointing out his spectacular career trajectory.
One told PRWeek: “It’s a pretty meteoric rise from a Defra media spad to the biggest comms job in government in less than three years. He was thrown straight into the lion’s den and dealt with it very well.”
Who pulls the strings?
So why would Johnson’s Government give what is probably one of the most challenging comms jobs in the UK to someone who is relatively untested?
The answer is, perhaps, in two parts.
The first is that many believe it was a conscious decision to hire someone more junior who would be easier for Cummings to control.
One former political editor says: “[Cain] is Cummings’ ‘man on earth’ – his mouthpiece. He won’t do anything without Dom saying: ‘We’ve got to do this.’”
The former Downing Street insider says it is a safe assumption that Cain was hired because he would be easier to mould. “They wanted a ‘yes man’,” they add.
Steve Hawkes, former deputy political editor at The Sun and now director and head of strategic media at BCW, tells PRWeek: “The problem [Cain] faces is Dom Cummings. Dom wants to do everything, which gives Lee a lot less room to breathe. And if he does well, people think it’s down to Dom.
“There’s a view he should stand up to Dom a bit more to stop the crazier stuff.”
In contrast, others suggest Cain is on a long leash, as Cummings does not have time to be both Johnson’s chief adviser and director of comms.
One recent colleague of Cain’s in Downing Street says: “Lee is in the inner circle with the PM and Dom. The crude notion of him being a puppet is a misreading of the situation.”
The Westminster source says Cain and Cummings complement each other, with the former being the better campaigner and the latter the one behind the wider strategy.
They say of the ‘puppet-master’ theory: “It’s a caricature. Boris has to own his own decisions and Lee has complete freedom to do everything he wants on the comms front.”
Leave versus Remain
The second theory behind Cain’s rise to the top of political comms is his loyalty to the cause behind the biggest national debate in a generation: whether to leave or remain in the European Union.
Others, such as former Johnson mayoral adviser and ex-senior political journalist Will Walden, now back at Edelman, were arguably more qualified for the job but did not get it. Why?
Cain was appointed head of broadcast for the official Leave campaign in early 2016, and has remained true to his colours through nearly four of the most tumultuous years in British politics.
The Johnson administration is hell-bent on building a team in its own image and there is no longer room for doubters, remainers or reluctant leavers – from the same political party or not.
The former Downing Street insider says: “A lot of the people working around Vote Leave have been catapulted into more senior positions simply because they were on the right side of the referendum, as opposed to their particular skill set. I know a lot of Spads who got forced out simply because they were ‘Remain’.”
Journalists wondering how one of their junior peers ascended to the corridors of power have come to a similar conclusion.
Parry says: “I’m not saying he’s not good at what he does, but it strikes me that it’s more to do with loyalty towards him being part of the Leave campaign than his ability to deal with journalists, answer questions competently and put forward the message Downing Street is trying to forge.”
What if Cain was not devoted to the cause after all, and had simply nailed his colours to the most convenient mast?
A former journalist colleague described the working-class Cain as anti-establishment, not interested in politics, and definitely not a Tory.
They tell PRWeek: “The only time he ever mentioned politics to me was just before the Brexit campaign. 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…’ At that point he had no experience or understanding of politics. I don’t know if he was just chasing money.”
If true, this puts an entirely different spin on Cain’s subsequent career.
His former colleague thinks he has taken a cynical, rather than ideological, approach to his role in the Leave campaign.
“He doesn’t seem to have many morals or to be passionate about anything in particular,” says the journalist. “It’s more getting ahead and blagging his way to the top.”
PRWeek understands that Cain is not popular across the broader Spad network in Government. Is this because they suspect he is not the believer he purports to be?
The former Downing Street insider says: “If it’s just pure ambition versus a deep, moral sense of belonging… then the proper ‘believers’ on either side do find that quite frustrating. However, some would argue that his boss has done exactly the same.”
Much has been made of Cain’s ignominious origins on Fleet Street as the man in the chicken suit, chasing political candidates including David Cameron around during the 2010 general election campaign. It was perhaps the most notable aspect of Cain’s tenure as a night reporter on the Daily Mirror.
He was competent but unremarkable as a journalist, recalls Parry.
“I can’t find a single exclusive story he wrote,” says Parry. “No splashes or anything out of the ordinary. He was solid, dependable.”
Even Cain’s stint as the chicken was less than remarkable, he adds. “I don’t think he showed any particular qualities for the position… other than being a person who could walk.”
Parry recalls that Cain was not the only Mirror reporter made to dress as a chicken, but merely one of a flock. “There were two or three different [Mirror] chickens who were all supposed to arrive [at a leaders’ debate in Birmingham during the 2010 campaign] to harass David Cameron as much as possible, so he might have been one of those.”
Not surprisingly, the chicken episode is not remembered fondly by Conservative comms professionals. One says: “I remember that bloody chicken because it was a nightmare. It was always outside the office. It used to chase us everywhere. It was horrible.”
Incidentally, Cain is not the only political comms chief with a fluffy costume in the back of his wardrobe – there is precedent in the US. During George W Bush’s presidency, Sean Spicer – who would go on to become Donald Trump’s comms chief and spokesman but back then was an aide in the Office of the US Trade Representative – had to dress up as the Easter Bunny to entertain children at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
But the comedic aspect of ‘yesterday’s-chicken-as-today’s-Downing-Street-comms-chief’ masks a more important point about where Cain’s political loyalties truly lie.
The Downing Street insider says: “Forget the distraction of the chicken. You don’t work for The Mirror if you then want to work for the Conservative Party. You don’t chase after David Cameron in a chicken suit. It’s unusual to come from The Mirror in that way. The Telegraph or The Sun, yes.”
Cain is now ruffling more feathers in the media and political circles than he ever did during his tabloid days.
Sources tell PRWeek that some within the Conservatives wrote Cain off because he does not fit the mould of an Eton-educated, identikit PR man.
Hawkes says: “Lee’s a bit of an enigma, and has upset a fair few people in the Lobby with his approach, but he’s better than many realise.
“He’s helped the Government out of a number of tight spots, not least in the aftermath of the Streatham stabbings [a terrorist attack in south London on 4 February].”
And in contrast to the wider Spad network, who might distrust him, Cain has built strong loyalties in the Leave camp since the heady days of 2016.
“He’s very driven, he’s a big believer in the cause, he’s very close to Boris,” says a recent former colleague. “He’s got a big media mind and he understands how a story’s going to work and how it’s going to unfold.”
Cain’s supporters also point to a man who sees the world in pictures, with their ability to create a powerful message. They cite Johnson’s general election campaign and its visual motif of the PM driving a Brexit-emblazoned JCB through a foam wall with the word “GRIDLOCK” across it; the riff on 'Love Actually' – an idea that was, in fact, borrowed from Labour candidate Dr Rosena Allin-Khan; or the short film of Johnson walking through campaign HQ, explaining why he called the election.
This is, once again, a departure in style from Cain’s predecessors, who were perhaps more focused on how stories would appear in print. This may explain more sceptical feelings towards him from some traditional print journalists who ‘don’t get’ modern, multichannel comms.
The former Downing Street colleague says: “Giving Boris a channel to talk directly to voters is very much a focus of Lee’s at the moment, for sure.”
But both Cain’s supporters and detractors agree on one point: control of the media – and, therefore, the narrative – is the central theme.
The Westminster source says: “It’s about putting ministers back in the box, it’s about putting special advisers back in the box, and it’s about putting the journalists into a situation where they are getting information he actually wants them to get, rather than information that others might be interested in. That control extends to the flow of information, and that’s what Lee is trying to do. He is trying to take control of the narrative.”
Whether the attempt to control the narrative flows from Cummings, Johnson or Cain, the approach is potentially storing up problems for the future, particularly come the time when the administration needs some friends in the media.
There are comparisons to be drawn with Trump’s treatment of the media and the result could be a democratic deficit in the UK.
The former Downing Street insider concludes: “The more you control environment and access, the more dangerous it becomes. We have one of the most fantastic press systems in the democratic world. If you look at the places that don’t enjoy a free press, the consequences are all too evident.”
Downing Street had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
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