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Carrie’s revenge: How PM’s fiancee called time on Vote Leave faction after ‘bonfire of the Spads’

The shock departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from the upper echelons of Downing Street cap a remarkable turnaround for a gang used to doing the hiring and firing.

Mr Cummings and his cadre of Vote Leavers oversaw what became known as a ‘Bonfire of the Spads’ after Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May as Prime Minister in 2019.

Determined to shakeup centralise control over what they viewed as a potentially disloyal system they targeted spads – special advisers – political behind-the-scenes fixers for ministers across government.

The brutal nature of the way many of these advisers were treated was  highlighted today when a Tory aide who was ‘frogmarched’ out of Downing Street by police after being summarily fired by Cummings was handed a five-figure payout. 

Treasury spad Sonia Khan was dramatically sacked by the maverick No10 chief amid a Brexit frenzy in the summer of last year, after she was accused of still being in touch with former boss Philip Hammond

Ms Khan, who was working for Sajid Javid at the time, brought an employment tribunal and Mr Cummings was facing giving evidence next month.

But it emerged today that she had withdrawn her claim after agreeing a settlement, understood to be worth ‘five figures’. There had already been a huge exodus of advisers from Whitehall by that point, with one former adviser telling MailOnline at the time Mr Cummings increasingly ‘looks like a bully’, and said his conduct raised questions for the PM.

Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds is a former director of communications for the Conservative Party and, combined with being now only in her early 30s, her path is likely to have crossed with many of them, as they climbed the political ladder.

So her decision to intervene over Mr Cain’s attempt to be promoted – setting in course a chain of events that ended with Mr Cummings’ decision to also step down – may be seen by some through this prism.    

Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds is a former director of communications for the Conservative Party and, combined with being now only in her early 30s, her path is likely to have crossed with many spads as they climbed the political beanstalk

Mr Cummings and his cadre of Vote Leavers oversaw what became known as a 'Bonfire of the Spads' after Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May as Prime Minister in 2019

Mr Cummings and his cadre of Vote Leavers oversaw what became known as a ‘Bonfire of the Spads’ after Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May as Prime Minister in 2019

The brutal nature of the way many of these advisers were treated was highlighted today when SoniaKhan, a Tory aide who was 'frogmarched' out of Downing Street by police after being summarily fired by Cummings was handed a five-figure payout

The brutal nature of the way many of these advisers were treated was highlighted today when SoniaKhan, a Tory aide who was ‘frogmarched’ out of Downing Street by police after being summarily fired by Cummings was handed a five-figure payout

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A Tory aide who was ‘frogmarched’ out of Downing Street by police after being summarily fired by Dominic Cummings has been handed a five-figure sum to settle her employment case.

Treasury adviser Sonia Khan was dramatically sacked by the maverick No10 chief amid a Brexit frenzy in the summer of last year, after she was accused of still being in touch with former boss Philip Hammond.

Ms Khan, who was working for Sajid Javid at the time, brought an employment tribunal and Mr Cummings was facing giving evidence next month.

But it emerged today that she had withdrawn her claim after agreeing a settlement, understood to be worth ‘five figures’.

In a statement issued by the FDA civil service union, Ms Khan said: ‘Following 14 months of negotiation, I have today reached a settlement with the Treasury, my former employer, and as a result I am no longer pursuing my employment tribunal claim which was due to be heard in London in December.

‘I would like to thank the FDA who have supported this action and were instrumental in finding a settlement, alongside their legal advisers Slater and Gordon.

‘I would also like to thank the Metropolitan Police Service for their support during intense scrutiny and pressure for myself and my family, and my current employer, Cicero/AMO, for their wholehearted backing in the last year.

‘Having reached a settlement of these issues I am now moving on with my life and career. I have a fulfilling job as a consultant, I maintain great affection for the Conservative Party and remain a committed Conservative.

‘The party took me under its wing when I was a teen and I feel hugely privileged to have served as a special adviser under the last two prime ministers.’ 

Special advisers have long acted as the voice of their ministers, representing their interests and determined to protect them and foster their careers.

But No10 under Cummings was determined that their loyalty should be to Mr Johnson alone.

Before coronavirus took over the political consciousness Mr Cummings waged a war on the Spad system.

A visible part of this was his bizarre January job advert in which he calls for ‘super-talented weirdos’ to apply to work at Number 10.

Writing on his personal blog, Mr Cummings sets out plans for a Downing Street shake-up in which maths and physics PhDs would mingle with ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ and people who ‘fought their way out of appalling hell holes’.

He also ordered a clampdown on advisers socialising with journalists in a bid to exert message discipline over the who of Government.

The biggest flashpoint in the crusade was the resignation of Sajid Javid as chancellor in February.

The Bromsgrove MP – who challenged Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership last year before becoming his top minister – was given an ultimatum by the PM that he must accept his political advisers being ousted and replaced by Cummings loyalists to stay in No11.

Instead he chose to walk away and was replaced by his deputy Rishi Sunak, meaning his advisers had to leave anyway.

The Chancellor’s five-strong team included Mats Persson, a former head of the Open Europe think-tank and adviser to David Cameron – the ex-PM who once described Mr Cummings as ‘career psychopath’. 

Other aides include Samuel Coates, who previously worked at ConservativeHome, media adviser Tim Sculthorpe, Adam Memon and Jennifer Powell.

Their jobs were tied to that of Mr Javid – meaning all were automatically evicted from government with their boss.

Mr Cummings had been especially furious at the Treasury over a serious of briefings and leaks he blamed on ‘rogue’ operatives in No11.

Flashpoints included the Budget in March, a ‘mansion tax’ and Mr Javid’s determination to push ahead with the HS2 rail link.

Mr Cummings is a long-term critic of the £106billion scheme, which he regards as a cash black hole.

Lynn Davidson

Lynn Davidson (left) left her post as special adviser – or ‘Spad’ – to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace after rebuking Dominic Cummings over his behaviourin February

Sajid Javid pictured at the party conference in Manchester in September 2019 with his senior advisors including Tim Sculthorpe (right)

Sajid Javid pictured at the party conference in Manchester in September 2019 with his senior advisors including Tim Sculthorpe (right) 

In addition to Mr Javid, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland was ordered to sack one of his advisers, Peter Cardwell, in order to keep his own job.

Other spads were also vetoed by Mr Cummings. The hiring of Anita Boateng by Security Minister Brandon Lewis was blocked.

And then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan was told her adviser at the Department of Education, Luke Tryl, could not move with her to her new department. 

And in March Lynn Davidson has been removed from her post as special adviser – or ‘Spad’ – to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace after refusing to be shifted to another department.

The departure emerged weeks after Ms Davidson clashed with Mr Cummings over his behaviour.

The maverick aide had swiped at the end of a meeting of Spads on February 14 that he would ‘see some of you next week’ – a reference to the impending reshuffle in which many of them lost their jobs.

Ms Davidson, a former reporter at The Sun and Daily Mail, later challenged Mr Cummings over the jibe, saying it had been out of order.

The departures of Mr Cain and Mr Cummings were the culmination of a bitter power struggle inside Mr Johnson’s top team, with rival factions battling for supremacy even as the government struggles to tackle the coronavirus crisis. 

Mr Cummings had pushed for his ally to be appointed as chief of staff to the PM despite warnings from Ms Symonds – herself a former Conservative Party head of media – that it would be ‘a mistake’ given how the campaign against the pandemic had gone so far. 

She is said to have complained the No10 operation was being run in an ‘uncollegiate’ way and the PM was not getting ‘good advice’.

There are also claims that Allegra Stratton, Downing Street’s new on-screen press secretary, and senior aide Munira Mirza were against the move. It would have meant the PM’s core circle being exclusively male.

There are also claims that Allegra Stratton, Downing Street's new on-screen press secretary (pictured yesterday), and senior aide Munira Mirza were against the move

There are also claims that Allegra Stratton, Downing Street’s new on-screen press secretary (pictured yesterday), and senior aide Munira Mirza were against the move

Having successfully started Britain down the road to leaving the EU by winning the 2016 referendum, the hardcore of the brains behind the Brexiteer organisation fronted by Mr Johnson followed him into No10.

The hardcore of the group was a male quartet; Cummings, Cain, Oliver Lewis and Rob Oxley, aka Dom, Caino, Sonic and Roxstar. 

With a game plan of completely shaking up the internal operations of Downing Street, they formed an inner circle that has been accused of throttling access to the Prime Minister and gaining almost total control over the levers of power. 

This set them on a collision path with ministers and MPs, as well as other advisers, especially as Brexit and then the coronavirus pandemic threatened to overwhelm the Government. 

Ten years ago, at the 2010 general election, Mr Cain, 39, was a reporter whose job at the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror saw him engage in fowl play by donning a man-sized rooster outfit to goad the future PM

Ten years ago, at the 2010 general election, Mr Cain, 39, was a reporter whose job at the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror saw him engage in fowl play by donning a man-sized rooster outfit to goad the future PM

Oliver Lewis

Rob Oxley (left)

Oliver Lewis (left) currently serves as a Brexit advisor while Rob Oxley (right, with the PM) now works as an adviser at the Foreign Office having served as No10 Press Secretary

One of the triggers for the turmoil has also been the appointment of Ms Stratton to front the televised news conferences that Number 10 is planning. 

The former Guardian and ITV journalist is married to James Forsyth, the political editor of Tory magazine the Spectator – which also employs Mr Cummings’ aristocrat wife Mary Wakefield.

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

It was also reported that Mr Cain had preferred to choose someone else, BBC journalist Ellie Price, to the role instead. 

There is no fixed date yet for the start of those briefings, but Mr Johnson hopes they will help improve the Government’s public image.

The post-Brexit trade talks are entering their end game, with a resolution needed shortly if a deal is to be implemented by the time transition arrangements expire at the end of the year, when the UK leaves the single market and customs union.

The weakened position of the Vote Leave contingent within Number 10 could make it easier for Mr Johnson to compromise, although he has repeatedly insisted he is prepared to walk away without a deal.

Ten years ago, at the 2010 general election, Mr Cain, 39, was a reporter whose job at the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror saw him engage in fowl play by donning a man-sized rooster outfit to  goad the future PM.

But after switching from journalism to political communications he swiftly rose through the ranks thanks to the EU referendum.

Again lining up against David Cameron he worked with Mr Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign fronted by the future PM which is credited with paving the way for the result of the 2016 referendum.

When Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018, Mr Cain continued working with him.

He then helped run his leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications.  

His proposed promotion to chief of staff would raise concerns among some Tory MPs that the Vote Leave operation is tightening its grip on the heart of Government.

It would also be controversial with some elements of the media who have been bruised by Mr Cain’s uncompromising style.

Last year he ordered ministers to boycott BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because of perceived bias. The ban was only lifted when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The coronavirus crisis has also seen a series of communications missteps, with information affecting the lives of millions of people leaked out or selectively briefed before being formally announced. 

Mr Cain has also imposed a boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain that has lasted for more than six months this year, in the middle of the pandemic. 

The influence of the group in Downing Street and the Treasury led to a caution from Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the Liaison Committee, in June. 

Mr Jenkin, believed to have been proposed for the role because of his backing for Mr Johnson, told the Observer: ‘Frustrations make No 10 advisers hyperactive, ever more directive, controlling, even bullying. 

‘The effect is always the same. It leads to cabinet ministers feeling sidelined and hectored and senior officials becoming disengaged, resigned, even resentful.’ 

Mr Cummings also attracted the opprobrium of a former minister’s wife when she released a tell-all memoir earlier this year.

Sasha Swire, the wife of Sir Hugo Swire, branded him ‘one of those odd amoebas you find in jars in school science labs’.

In Diary of an MP’s Wife she said Cummings is a ‘stark raving mad Rasputin’, and that teaming him up with Michael Gove, the ‘most volatile member of the Government, was always an explosion waiting to happen’. 

Who’s who in the civil war between Cummings’ Brexit Boys and the ‘Carrie Symonds crew’ 

Cummings pictured outside Downing Street in one of the outfits that has made him an unlikely style icon

Cummings pictured outside Downing Street in one of the outfits that has made him an unlikely style icon 

TEAM CUMMINGS 

Dominic Cummings 

Age: 48

Official title: Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister 

Boris Johnson’s maverick Svengali, who gained national notoriety for his lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’ before a trip back to London. 

The former Vote Leave director backed his former campaign staffer Lee Cain to take over as the PM’s chief of staff – prompting a bitter wrangle with Johnson’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, who warned it would be a ‘mistake’. 

Cummings, who is known for his acerbic demeanour and preference for hoodies and ‘slob’ style jackets over suits, eventually lost the vicious tug-of-war, prompting Cain’s resignation and speculation that he could follow. 

He is known to have a difficult relationship with Symonds, with reports earlier this year suggesting she was opposed to his aggressive approach to politics and tendency to ‘pick unnecessary fights’ which could harm the PM’s image. 

Mr Cummings was born in County Durham and is married to Mary Wakefield, a senior journalist with the Spectator magazine, a Tory bible that Boris Johnson once edited. 

 

Lee Cain

Boris Johnson 's top aide Lee Cain  (pictured arriving for work today) has announced he is quitting amid rumours Carrie Symonds was trying to block his promotion to Number 10 's chief of staff

Boris Johnson ‘s top aide Lee Cain  (pictured arriving for work today) has announced he is quitting amid rumours Carrie Symonds was trying to block his promotion to Number 10 ‘s chief of staff

Mr Cain, Number 10’s director of communications, has been one of Mr Johnson’s closest allies in Westminster since he first started working for him back in 2017. 

One ally said Mr Johnson ‘regards Lee as his man on earth’ and his exit from the Government will represent a significant changing of the guard among the PM’s inner circle. 

Mr Cain is a Vote Leave veteran and a staunch loyalist of Mr Cummings, with the latter credited with having masterminded the strategy which propelled the Brexiteer campaign group to an unexpected victory at the 2016 EU referendum.

The former journalist dressed up as the Daily Mirror’s general election chicken and pursued David Cameron on the campaign trail back in 2010. 

But he has recorded an impressive rise since then, establishing himself as one of the biggest beasts in Whitehall.

The 38-year-old, who often sports a heavy morning shadow and likes to relax watching boxing on TV, is a comprehensive school boy from Ormskirk in Merseyside. 

Mr Cain and Mr Johnson first worked together during the Brexit referendum campaign with the former serving as a communications chief while the latter acted as Vote Leave’s public face. 

He has been by Mr Johnson’s side since 2017 when he left Theresa May’s Downing Street operation to work for him at the Foreign Office. 

Mr Cain then followed Mr Johnson and continued to work for him when the latter quit Mrs May’s Cabinet over Brexit in 2018. 

He helped orchestrate Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign before joining his Government as director of communications.  

 

Cummings ally Cleo Watson seen outside No10

Cummings ally Cleo Watson seen outside No10 

Cleo Watson 

Age: 31

Official title: Head of the Prime Minister’s Priorities and Campaigns

It has become a familiar ritual in Downing Street: photographers clamour to take pictures of elegant Cleo Watson as she strides towards the No 10 door with a dishevelled Dominic Cummings, the pair looking, as one wag put it, like ‘a gazelle with a pit pony’.

Watson is Cummings’ special adviser and the pair share a close relationship, with one Whitehall source describing her as ‘the Cummings whisperer’ because she is one of very few people who can calm him down when he flies into a rage.

Watson is one of five high-achieving sisters from an extraordinary family whose story could come from a Jane Austen novel. Indeed, she is the second of her siblings to work closely with a Tory leader. Her sister Annabel, 41, known as Bee, was Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. 

Watson worked with Vote Leave during the 2016 EU referendum, before landing a top job in the policy unit in No 10 during May’s premiership. 

She remained at the heart of Government under Johnson and now boasts the title of ‘Head of the Prime Minister’s Priorities and Campaigns’. 

Oliver Lewis is another Vote Leave member to now work in No10

Oliver Lewis is another Vote Leave member to now work in No10 

Oliver Lewis (nickname ‘Sonic’) 

Age: Late 20s

 Official title: Brexit policy adviser

A former Vote Leave staffer, Brexit policy adviser Oliver Lewis is a close ally of Cummings – who is known to address him by the nickname ‘Sonic’. 

Oxford-educated Lewis has been working closely with Michael Gove on No Deal preparations, and was inspired by Cummings’ love of science to construct an enormous spreadsheet to model difference scenarios styled on techniques used by NASA. 

He has also worked closely alongside chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, and earlier this year was accused by EU sources of repeatedly trying to shut down negotiations, according to The Sun. 

After backing his mentor in his quest to install Cain at the top of Downing Street, Lewis has also become embroiled in the ugly fallout following Symonds’ victory. 

Reports today suggested he was also ‘seriously considering’ his position.  

CARRIE’S CREW  

Carrie Symonds - seen at a Remembrance Day service in Whitehall on Sunday - has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Downing Street

Carrie Symonds – seen at a Remembrance Day service in Whitehall on Sunday – has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Downing Street 

Carrie Symonds

Age: 32

Official title: NA

Boris Johnson’s fiancee and a former Conservative Party head of media, Symonds has emerged as a force to be reckoned in No10. 

She is known to have a difficult relationship with Cummings and blocked his bid to install his ally Lee Cain as the PM’s chief of staff, insisting this would be a ‘mistake’ given how the campaign against the pandemic had gone so far.

A brutal stand-off ensued before Symonds emerged as triumphant – with Cain announcing his resignation and Cummings said to be also considering his position. 

Symonds grew up in west London and attended Godolphin and Latymer School, an independent day school for girls, and the University of Warwick. 

She worked for the Tory party from 2009, before hitting the headlines when her affair with Mr Johnson, 56, came to light. 

A passionate conservationist, she had a direct impact on government policy after a badger cull in Derbyshire was called off, a move that saved thousands of the animals. 

Allegra Stratton is poised to become the face of Boris Johnson's new US-style TV press briefings

Allegra Stratton is poised to become the face of Boris Johnson’s new US-style TV press briefings

Allegra Stratton

Age: 39

Official title: No10 Press Secretary 

Allegra Stratton, the former journalist poised to become the face of Downing Street’s first US-style televised press briefings, was the cause of the power struggle that erupted. 

After her appointment, she insisted she would be answerable to the PM only, not Cain. With the former Daily Mirror journalist fearing he was about to be side-lined, Boris offered him the role of chief of staff.

That’s when Stratton and her allies stepped in, determined to prevent that happening.

Stratton is a respected former journalist for the Guardian and ITV among others, and helped Chancellor Rishi Sunak craft his public image before being poached by No10. 

Stratton is a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite who was educated at Latymer Upper School in London (fees, £21,000 a year) and studied anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge. She is married to James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator.

Interestingly, while Cain has been mocked for dressing as a chicken to stalk former Tory leader David Cameron in the 2010 election, footage has recently emerged of Stratton also dressed as one, dancing at a high-spirited Westminster party where veteran political pundit Andrew Neil led the conga. 

Munira Mirza is the phenomenally-bright head of No10's Policy Unit

Munira Mirza is the phenomenally-bright head of No10’s Policy Unit 

Munira Mirza

Age: 42

Official title: Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit

Munira Mirza is the highly respected and phenomenally bright head of the Downing Street policy unit. 

A long-time Boris aide dating back to his time as London mayor, she prefers to work away from the limelight, but is also said to have made her opposition to Cain’s appointment clear. 

The Oldham-born academic is a popular figure around No10. ‘She has a huge brain but wears it lightly. Boris listens to her,’ according to one source.

Mirza’s family came to Britain from Pakistan, with her father finding work as a factory while her mother taught Urdu part time. 

She attended Breeze High School and Oldham Sixth Form College, where she was the only pupil to gain a place at Oxford, where she  studied English Literature. 

A former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Mirza is now one of the members in Johnson’s circle, and was named by the PM as one of the five women who have shaped his life.  


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