Lee Cain, who has resigned as Downing Street director of communications, arrives at the rear entrance of Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY
Lee Cain, who has resigned as Downing Street director of communications, arrives at the rear entrance of Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY

London — A senior aide to Boris Johnson has resigned after a power struggle inside the prime minister’s office, in a move that threatens to destabilise the British government.

Lee Cain announced he was standing down as Johnson’s director of communications in a statement on Wednesday evening. His exit raised questions over the future of his close ally and friend Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most powerful — and controversial — adviser. David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, and his deputy, Oliver Lewis, were also unhappy with the situation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

According to one version of events, Cain and Cummings lobbied the prime minister to make Cain chief of staff. But Johnson was unhappy that the potential appointment was made public in Wednesday’s newspapers before he had reached a final decision, people familiar with the matter said.

By Wednesday evening, Cain decided he had to go and issued a resignation statement saying he had been offered the role of chief of staff but not explaining why he hadn’t accepted.

Cain’s departure comes at a particularly sensitive time: England is in a partial lockdown and the UK passed 50,000 deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday. Talks over a trade deal with the EU are still unresolved as the clock runs down to the end of the Brexit transition period in December.

Vote leave

Both Cummings and Cain worked with Johnson on the Vote Leave referendum campaign of 2016 and Cain went on to serve as Johnson’s senior press aide in his role as foreign secretary.

The exit of Cain and speculation among officials that Cummings could follow risks disrupting Johnson’s preparations for the final stage of negotiations with Brussels. With the premier’s inner team of Brexit-backing aides now in some disarray, there may be implications for UK policy.

Cain has been at Johnson’s side for years and his influence on the premier, alongside that of Cummings, is often understated. Johnson thanked Cain, a former tabloid journalist, for his years of service and described him as “a true ally and friend,” adding: “He will be much missed.”

As the person responsible for the government’s communications strategy, Cain has come under scrutiny during the coronavirus pandemic, with Johnson’s operation at times criticised by members of his own Conservative Party for lacking clear messaging and being pushed from one crisis to another.

“There’s been unhappiness about the Number 10 operation for some time,” Charles Walker, vice-chair of the influential 1922 committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, told BBC radio. “We’ve heard far too much from advisers over the last 18 months,” he said. “MPst have felt excluded from the decision making process.”

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick insisted the government is not being distracted by upheaval in Johnson’s office. “The prime minister has a strong team around him and all of us, whether it's his advisers or the cabinet, are focused on the big task, which is tackling the pandemic,” Jenrick told BBC radio.

Cain’s departure coincides with the appointment of a new key press secretary, Allegra Stratton, a former journalist who is due to lead televised White House-style briefings for the government. Cain will stay in his post until the end of 2020.

“It was an honour to be asked to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff,” Cain said, following reports that he had been lined up for the role by Johnson. “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,” Cain said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Most of all I would like to thank the prime minister for his loyalty and leadership. I have no doubt that under his premiership the country will deliver on the promises made in the 2019 election campaign and build back better from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The opposition Labour Party said Cain’s resignation shows government officials are divided and failing to focus on the right priorities. “Boris Johnson’s government is fighting like rats in a sack over who gets what job,” Labour said in an e-mailed statement. “It is precisely this lack of focus and rank incompetence that has held Britain back.”


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