At an intimate dinner last July at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence in leafy Buckinghamshire, the wine and the conversation – a mix of high politics, policy, Covid, and Westminster gossip – were flowing freely between old friends and colleagues.
That night Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds were hosting Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata, and the high-flying media couple Allegra Stratton, a former BBC/ITV correspondent, and her husband James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator magazine.
Just three months earlier, Stratton had joined Sunak at the Treasury as director of strategic communications. She was being widely credited with turning the new Chancellor into one of the government’s most popular and effective media figures as the pandemic took hold.
Pictured: Boris Johnson at a media briefing in Downing Street yesterday
Now Boris, still recovering from his own brush with the virus, wanted Stratton to reinvigorate No10, and it was at that dinner that he sprang an unwelcome surprise on Sunak.
‘Allegra, you’re coming to work for me. I’m really looking forward to it,’ Boris announced. Turning to Sunak, he mumbled sheepishly: ‘I hope you don’t mind Rishi?’
Not only did the Chancellor mind, he was furious. He’d had no inkling that Stratton and Boris had even discussed her interest in the post of Downing Street press secretary to present daily televised briefings. It was a newly-created role and inspired by the daily White House press conferences as a way for the Government to present its message directly to the public in a new purpose-built £2.6million media centre at No9 Downing Street.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street, London
Allegra Stratton would be Britain’s answer to the legendary CJ Cregg in the hit TV series The West Wing – and one of the most recognisable faces in Britain as she sparred with ex-colleagues as they scrutinised government policy.
Yet on Tuesday that dream – both for No10 and for Stratton – came crashing down when it was announced that the daily briefings were being axed – before even the first broadcast. And in what is widely seen as a demotion, Stratton, 41, is now out of No10 and will head up communications for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in November.
While she is said to be putting a positive spin on the new post – based in No9 with Alok Sharma, the Cabinet minister in charge of the conference – she had set her heart on the West Wing role and is bitterly disappointed that the idea has been dropped.
Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s Press Secretary, in Downing Street
‘Losing the Downing Street role is the first setback in her career,’ according to a Westminster insider. ‘She’s taken it very hard.’
So how, when hopes were so high on all sides, did it come to this?
The prestigious new post had yet to be advertised formally when Boris dropped his bombshell that summer evening. It was over late night glasses of wine with her friend Carrie in the Downing Street flat that Stratton is reported to have pitched hard to get the job – which was being widely talked about in journalistic circles. Carrie told Boris she believed Stratton was the right candidate. ‘You used to be the most popular politician in Britain,’ Stratton told the PM. The mother of two argued a female-friendly face leading the Downing Street briefings would help revive his popularity which had been hit hard by his Government’s handling of the pandemic.
Jack Doyle has been appointed as the new Downing Street Director of Communications
Boris’s initial choice was, reportedly, the BBC’s Riz Lateef with Sky’s Sophy Ridge also in the frame. But he was soon persuaded of the merits of Allegra Stratton.
The PM had been irritated by polls showing Sunak was easily the most popular Tory politician.
He saw Stratton, a Cambridge graduate who had enjoyed a stellar career in newspapers and broadcasting, as key to Sunak’s slick media performances and social media.
She reportedly came up with the slogan ‘Eat out to Help Out’ (the successful Government scheme to support the hospitality industry launched last August) and the nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’.
James Slack, then Boris’s official spokesman, director of communications Lee Cain, pictured, (who came up with the West Wing briefing idea), and Helen Bower-Easton (now director of communications at the Foreign Office) made up the interview panel
The PM knew, however, that Sunak felt deeply betrayed. The Chancellor had been at Winchester with Stratton’s huband and was best man at their wdedding. The two couples were not just close friends but godparents to each other’s children.
‘Allegra hadn’t mentioned a word about the new job,’ a Whitehall source said last night. ‘Rishi was livid. He thought Boris had behaved badly. As for Allegra it damaged his relationship with her. But Boris wanted some of the “Rishi magic” to rub off [on him]’.
When the £125,000-a-year job was formally advertised later that summer Stratton applied. She underwent the interview and audition process, along with other candidates including Amber de Botton, ITV’s head of politics.
According to sources, however, she was not judged to have out-performed her rivals. In a mock press conference, Stratton allegedly got into a muddle over proposed Covid vaccinations. ‘If the press conference had been for real and her comments made public, it could have had a negative impact on a vaccine programme,’ said one Whitehall source.
But what followed was a bitter power struggle behind the scenes as Cain and Dominic Cummings, then the PM’s chief adviser, found themselves at odds with Stratton and a powerful coterie of supportive women, including Carrie Symmonds and Munira Mirza (pictured), head of the Downing Street policy unit
Then the interviews were tested on focus groups of floating voters, the majority of whom reportedly thought that Stratton was too ‘‘combative and aggressive’’.
James Slack, then Boris’s official spokesman, director of communications Lee Cain (who came up with the West Wing briefing idea), and Helen Bower-Easton (now director of communications at the Foreign Office) made up the interview panel. And, insiders claim, all three thought BBC correspondent Ellie Price had performed best, while Angus Walker, an ITN correspondent, was also judged to have fared well.
Allegedly, Allegra Stratton’s name was already on the dressing room door of the pristine new studio because the PM was adamant he wanted her. When Cain argued that she should not have the job Boris reportedly exploded: ‘Forget the process. I am giving the job to Allegra. I’ve got to do this because if I don’t, Carrie will go f****** crackers about it.’
Prime Minister Official Spokesman James Slack in Downing Street
And come October, when she started at No10, Allegra Stratton was raring to make political history with the briefings scheduled to start in the New Year.
But what followed was a bitter power struggle behind the scenes as Cain and Dominic Cummings, then the PM’s chief adviser, found themselves at odds with Stratton and a powerful coterie of supportive women, including Carrie Symmonds and Munira Mirza, head of the Downing Street policy unit.
The three joined forces to persuade Boris to abandon plans to make Lee Cain, who revelled in his ‘thuggish’ reputation, the Downing Street chief of staff.
When Cummings and Cain quit in November, Stratton said: ‘The country does not want to be run by people in No10 who treat people discourteously and unpleasantly.’
It was an important but short-lived victory for Allegra Stratton.
After Britain went into lockdown again in December, the TV briefings were postponed, although both Boris and Carrie were still set on Stratton as the telegenic, softer face of the Government.
‘He thought she was a detoxifying presence,’ says one observer of the ongoing drama.
So in January, Stratton was put through her paces in a series of practice sessions with James Slack who’d been promoted to be head of communications. Generally opposed to the concept of the TV style briefings, Slack was not impressed and began to lobby the PM to drop the entire idea.
The PM did not, it seems, need much persuading. Riding high in the polls and with a successful vaccine rollout, advisers saw no reason he should not represent his own Government. In the last few weeks, Stratton has taken part in conference calls with the media but, according to some participants, has more than once added to the Government’s difficulties.
Last month, a Labour-supporting tabloid ran an interview with Jennifer Arcuri, the American tech entrepreneur who revealed lurid new details of what she claimed was a four-year extramarital affair with Boris when he was London Mayor. When asked about the reports, instead of side stepping the issue, Stratton insisted that: ‘There is no case to answer. He [Boris] acted with honesty and integrity.’ The comments triggered incredulity and mirth – and made unwelcome headlines.
In another incident, when challenged about unsubstantiated reports that she had fallen foul of Carrie Symonds, instead of parrying the question, Stratton replied: ‘I love Carrie and would do anything for her. When we all go out for a drink she is just the best fun imaginable. We are all a nest of singing birds.’ Those bizarre comments – even though she claimed they were off the record – gave the story another lease of life.
A final straw was her response to Dame Louise Casey, a former government poverty adviser who accused the Tories of being the ‘nasty party’ in a row over benefits during the pandemic. The ‘nasty party’ tag was first used by Theresa May nearly 20 years ago at a Tory conference. It’s a label that successive Conservative leaders have tried to escape and one that Boris certainly did not want revived.
But Allegra’s reply astonished many Tory MPs, especially those who’d always been suspicious of her long-standing friendship with former Labour leader Ed Miliband. ‘There is no way this Government or this party could be called the nasty party’, she said. That a senior figure in Downing Street had even used the phrase gave the controversy new momentum.
James Slack has now left No 10 and his replacement as director of communications Jack Doyle, who started last week, is said to believe that the televised briefings are the wrong vehicle for the Government.
Last night a Downing Street source said that while the pandemic dominates the news cycle ‘Doyle thinks detailed questions about Covid variants and vaccine efficacy must be answered by experts. By the scientists.’
On the wall of her kitchen in Islington, North London, Allegra Stratton has a photograph of Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted as Donald Trump’s communications director for 11 days. It had long been the joke in her family about whether she would make it to 12 days. As it happened she never even got to day one to shine in front of the cameras in the role specially created for her.