'Symptom of the final days' for Johnson: Industry reacts to Lee Cain's shock departure

Downing Street director of comms Lee Cain has resigned – hours after reports suggested he was to become Boris Johnson’s chief of staff.

Lee Cain will leave Downing Street at the end of the year (pic credit: Getty)
Lee Cain will leave Downing Street at the end of the year (pic credit: Getty)

In a resignation statement issued overnight, Cain said he would leave his post at the end of the year and thanked the Prime Minister for his 'loyalty and leadership'.

Widespread reports yesterday – which went unconfirmed by No.10 – tipped Cain to be promoted to Johnson’s chief ‘fixer’, as part of a shake-up of his Downing Street operation.

In his resignation statement, Cain confirmed that he had been asked to take the role.

He said: “It has been a privilege to work as an adviser for Mr Johnson for the last three years – being part of a team that helped him win the Tory leadership contest, secure the largest Conservative majority for three decades – and it was an honour to be asked to serve as the Prime Minister's chief of staff.”

Former Daily Mail political editor, James Slack, currently Johnson’s chief spokesman, is tipped to replace Cain as the next director of comms.

Infighting

Cain’s surprise resignation came amid reports of consternation about Johnson’s decision to promote him among those in the Conservative party who blame Cain for the Government’s recent comms missteps.

Sir Charles Walker, vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think there has been unhappiness about the Number 10 operation for some time."

Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds – herself a former director of comms for the Conservative Party – was also reported to be opposed to Cain’s promotion.

Cain, meanwhile, is thought to have been unhappy with the appointment of senior broadcast journalist Allegra Stratton to lead No.10’s new White House-style daily televised press briefings, which begin this month.

Stratton is thought to have wanted direct access to the Prime Minister, rather than reporting to Cain, in order to do her job more effectively.

Responding to Cain’s resignation, Johnson thanked him for his “extraordinary service to the Government over the last four years”.

He added: “He has been a true ally and friend and I am very glad that he will remain director of communications until the new year and to help restructure the operation. He will be much missed.”

Industry reaction

Nick Faith, director at WPI Strategy, said: “If the goal was to bounce the Prime Minister into appointing Lee as chief of staff, it clearly didn’t work. However, talk of the Vote Leave alumni losing influence may be slightly over egging the pudding."

He added: "What we could see is a different approach to Downing Street communications. Cain was known as to be uncompromising in his dealing with the lobby, a tough street fighter who got things done. James Slack and Allegra Stratton are both experienced and first class operators who held senior positions in the lobby previously. They will want to unify the No 10 operation and ensure there is complete focus on getting the communications right around Covid and Brexit.”

Stephen Day, senior managing director, strategic comms, at FTI Consulting, said: "This is the last thing that any Government  would need in the midst of the reality of the national emergency that is the pandemic.  Whatever the issues that may lie behind this story it’s clear that the need for good communications is more vital than ever if the public are to retain confidence in the National effort to combat Covid." 

Steve Hawkes, head of strategic media at BCW and former deputy political editor of The Sun, said: "The Sunday papers will be riveting. Lee will have rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way – unfortunately in part simply because of his Vote Leave background - and I fear it could be open season on him now."

He added: "James Slack is the consummate professional, a lynch pin who is so important to the No.10 operation so it makes perfect sense for him to do the Director of Communications job now. Overall, insiders believe this will smooth relations between Downing Street and the lobby. It’s been confrontational for quite a long time now. Time will tell."

Stuart Bruce, independent crisis comms specialist, said: “It’s a symptom of the final days, but the final days can be short or long. This government has survived things that would have had far more serious consequences in previous administrations of any colour. It is disappointing the replacement is yet another journalist, appointed because he’s part of the inner circle. The catastrophic failure of government communications highlights why public relations needs to be strategic. The failure to appoint a public relations professional shows the government is still more interested in spin than a robust strategy that saves lives and protects the economy."

David McCullough, managing director of Riverside Communications, said: "This is a massive loss. Cain was huge factor in honing Boris’ image in the tabloids. James Slack has big shoes to fill, though his Mail background puts him in a strong position.”


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