Clearly there is serious factionalism in Number 10 when Lee Cain the comms director is offered a promotion to chief of staff one day – a move supported by chief special adviser Dominic Cummings and newly appointed cabinet secretary, Simon Case – then resigns the next, thanks to pressure from Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds.
We know that one reason Johnson and Cummings rate Cain is his robust loyalty to them and their cause.
But there are clear parallels here with the tale of Gordon Brown and Damian McBride in the late 2000s. McBride, if you remember, had (like Cain with Johnson) been Brown’s chief campaign aide in 2007, helping him get elected as Prime Minister, much to the horror of the more centrist, Blairite wing of the party.
McBride went on to become Downing Street press secretary, but his factionalist strong-arm methods soon led to his downfall. It transpired that McBride had been actively briefing against Blairite ministers for years. Then it emerged that McBride was involved in a power struggle with Brown's director of comms, Stephen Carter, which resulted in the latter being removed from his position and given a peerage/ministerial position.
Over the next year or two, McBride was caught briefing the media against other senior Labour ministers and spreading nasty false rumours about leading Conservative politicians. Eventually he was forced to resign in 2009, leaving politics altogether but having created the impression – along with Brown’s former press aide Charlie Whelan – of a dysfunctional administration riven with factionalism.
In Johnson’s case, the factionalism appears to be between the ardent Brexiteers (Cummings, Cain and others were key figures in the successful Vote Leave campaign) and more liberal, centrist characters such as Symonds – a former Conservative Party comms director herself – and certain influential MPs.
The tipping point in this battle appeared to be Allegra Stratton’s appointment as Downing Street press secretary last month. Former TV presenter Stratton was previously head of press for the chancellor Rishi Sunak, where she made a good impression on Johnson, and she is married to Spectator political editor, James Forsyth.
It was therefore an appointment that upset and threatened Cain and, apparently, Cummings too. But Stratton is now set to take a key role in relaunching Johnson’s premiership.
Cummings doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere as I write, so as yet it is unclear which faction ultimately will triumph. But the point is the damaging factionalism itself, which has become ‘the story’ of the Johnson premiership.
This was particularly the case after the Prime Minister showed huge loyalty to Cummings in the summer after it emerged he had breached lockdown rules with some arrogance.
The big difference between the situation today and that 11 or 12 years ago is that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, which has already killed 50,000 Britons and more than a million others around the world.
Can Johnson afford this infighting among his leadership team when the imperative is better communications to control the virus, save lives and get the economy moving again? That’s what’s known as a rhetorical question, of course.
Since the spring it has been obvious that Johnson’s Government has lacked strategy in its approach to the pandemic. It has flip-flopped from originally adopting a cavalier approach (shaking hands with COVID-19 patients in March and talking of “herd immunity”) to total lockdown using Churchillian wartime rhetoric – and then back to a more Swedish-style libertarian approach during the summer. Before returning to tiered, and then total, lockdown by the end of October.
There has also been a serious dearth of collaboration and discipline. The move, in early May, to announce lockdown relaxation in England on “Happy Monday” was not done in collaboration with leaders of the other home nations, who were out of step and scathing. Similarly when the tiered regional lockdowns began in the autumn, the regional mayors, such as Andy Burnham and Andy Street, were furious at the way it was handled.
Even within his own party, Johnson has serious comms problems with open criticism of recent national lockdown from Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee. And there’s a potential rebellion of 100 Tory MPs if Johnson decides to extend this policy in December.
With Brexit looming at the end of this year, and a deal with the EU still not done, Johnson is running out of time to convince the business world, the electorate, his own party that he has got all this under control.
He will be hoping that the new daily briefings fronted by Stratton will help but first he needs to get that famous ‘grip’ on his top team. That was the reason apparently why he was mooting loyalist Cain as his chief of staff.
Sadly this move and the subsequent backlash – another embarrassing U-turn – has had exactly the opposite effect.