One of Boris Johnson’s closest associates resigned amid rumors of power struggles in Downing Street. On the same day, the death toll of the British COVID exceeded 50,000, making Britain the first country in Europe to reach this grim milestone.
As the brexite transition period comes to an end on December 31, and Britain is still in danger of breaking out of the European Union without an agreement, one might say that the timing is not ideal for the British Prime Minister.
Lee Cain, Johnson’s Director of Communications, announced his resignation and hinted that he would leave in December, despite having been offered the new role of Chief of Staff at Number 10. Cain had worked with the Prime Minister for several years, and his shocked resignation led to speculation about divisions in Johnson’s top team and the future of Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to the leader, who Benedict Cumberbatch portrays in the film Brexit: The Uncivil War.
Cummings and Cain are long-time colleagues who worked together on the vacation campaign during the EU referendum in the UK in 2016. Despite the departure of his close ally, it appears that Cummings will stay here for the time being.
His resignation came amid reports that his possible promotion to Chief of Staff had caused consternation among some MPs, ministers and other government insiders. Even Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds – a former Conservative media chief – considered it “a mistake” to promote Cain amidst criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic so far, Tory-Quellen told The Times.
Conservative Member of Parliament Charles Walker said there had been “dissatisfaction with Operation No. 10 for some time” and that the Conservative Party in the broader sense had not been sufficiently involved. “Members of Parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process, and that is no secret,” he told the BBC.
His Tory colleague Sir Roger Gales told the channel that it was “very worrying indeed” that No. 10 “thinks it right to put that amount of energy into internal squabbles”.
Ben Mascall, the former co-director of communications at Downing Street, worked with Cain for three months in the run-up to the UK general election in December 2019. He tells Washington Newsday that his combative approach could be criticized by some in the Tory Party, but it is clearly an approach that has worked. The question is whether it still works during the COVID crisis, perhaps the greatest global challenge since World War II.
Mascall says: “When I spent the three months working with Lee and the current Number 10 team on the parliamentary elections, it was immediately clear that what set them apart from Downing Street, where I served under Theresa May, was their single-minded determination to eliminate anything that stood in the way of their strategic priorities. Many people criticized this approach at the time, and I myself sometimes wondered about it.
“But it worked: The country was finally able to look beyond Brexit, and the Conservative Party had its largest majority in 32 years. Few people deserve more credit for this success than Lee. Did he sometimes overdo it? Undoubtedly, and I am sure he would admit it. Last September we came to the Cabinet Room for the most dismal of daily meetings.
“We had a majority of minus 45 votes, the Supreme Court had just told the Prime Minister that he had broken the law, and we were on the verge of missing the third deadline to deliver something that the majority of the country – to be clear, I was not one of them – had voted for. At moments like this, you need people like Lee. Perhaps a more moderate approach would have worked better on other occasions since then.
Cain’s allies are angry, claiming that he was pushed to give up, leading to speculation about the future of Cummings, who recently made national headlines when he drove from his home in London to his parents’ farm in County Durham in north-east England while showing symptoms of COVID-19, just days after a nationwide lockdown in March. At that time, the prime minister’s primary message to the public was to “stay home”. At a press conference in the garden on Downing Street, Cummings declined to resign, saying he had no regrets.
In his resignation statement, Cain said it had been a privilege to work for Johnson over the past three years and said it was “an honor to be asked to serve as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. J