Boris Johnson’s dependence on his chief adviser and arch Brexiter Dominic Cummings in Downing Street was seen by some Conservative MPs as so complete they joked darkly the prime minister had been taken hostage.
But the resignations last week of Mr Cummings and Lee Cain, his friend and Downing Street director of communications, raise questions about what Mr Johnson’s office will look like without the combative Brexit veterans.
Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s fiancée, and Allegra Stratton, Mr Johnson’s new spokesperson, worked together to persuade the prime minister to change his team, prompting some Tory MPs to suggest that women in Number 10 had triumphed over the “boys’ club”.
The vitriol between the two camps spilled out across the Sunday newspapers, with revelations that veterans of the Vote Leave campaign apparently called Ms Symonds “Princess Nut Nuts” and claimed that the mother of Mr Johnson’s son Wilfred had undue influence inside Downing Street.
Although the idea of a gender war made good copy, Mr Johnson has been hearing for months from Conservative MPs and party donors — men and women, Brexiters and Remainers — that Mr Cummings’ permanent revolution had run its course and a less abrasive style was needed to get things done.
George Freeman, a former minister, wrote on Twitter: “This week has seen an outburst of the worst of Westminster’s bully-boy spin, misogyny & poisonous leaking & briefing.”
Mr Cummings provided vision and drive to Mr Johnson’s government, focusing on signature policies such as tackling regional inequalities by “levelling up” the UK, expanding the country’s science base and remodelling the machinery of government.
But his aggressive approach meant he burnt through the prime minister’s political capital — acquired after last year’s general election win — and accumulated enemies, notably among Conservative MPs and the media.
“I’ve known Dominic Cummings myself for many years,” George Eustice, environment secretary, told Sky News. “He’s got many great strengths and one of them is winning campaigns. He tends to apply himself in short bursts.”
Ms Stratton will become a crucial figure in Mr Johnson’s new-look Downing Street. A former Guardian and television journalist, she has helped chancellor Rishi Sunak burnish his image as head of communications at the Treasury. Mr Johnson will hope for something similar as he tries to rebuild his own reputation amid criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Ms Stratton has told friends that the public are tired of Downing Street’s fractious relationship with the media and she wants to swap the “attack” mindset for a more conversational approach.
In an early sign of the new tack, Piers Morgan, presenter of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, tweeted on Sunday that Number 10 had called to announce the end of its 201-day boycott of the programme. Health secretary Matt Hancock will appear on Monday morning.
Ms Stratton, who will front a new daily televised press conference from Downing Street in January, wants to revive the “old” Boris Johnson who reached across party lines as Tory mayor of London. The arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine and a possible UK-EU trade deal could prove catalysts for the new approach.
She told the Sunday Telegraph she had an ecumenical political background: “I voted for Brexit. And I voted for the Conservatives. In my youth I think I have voted Green, I voted Labour, I voted Lib Dem. But I’m definitely Brexit and a Johnson Tory.”
Apart from Ms Stratton, another important appointment in Mr Johnson’s new-look Number 10 will be a new chief of staff to provide a tighter grip on the centre of Whitehall and to rebuild tattered relations between the prime minister’s office and a disgruntled parliamentary party.
A cabinet reshuffle is expected in the new year, with MPs urging Mr Johnson to appoint much more substantial figures to his lacklustre roster and to prioritise ability over loyalty as the most important trait.
William Hague, former foreign secretary, told the FT Global Boardroom last week that Mr Johnson needed frank advice and a range of different views, not a small circle of like-minded Vote Leave aides.
Government officials said they also expected Mr Johnson to usher in a less fearful atmosphere in his administration, replacing the intimidatory tactics used by Mr Cummings and Mr Cain to try to keep a grip on the Whitehall machine.
But as Mr Johnson attempts to rebuild his Downing Street office ahead of what he hopes is a fresh start in 2021, a potential danger now awaits outside if Mr Cummings lifts the lid on his time in Number 10.
The Sunday Times reported one colleague of the prime minister as saying: “Dom’s favourite gesture at the moment in conversations is to pull the pin from an imaginary hand grenade and then throw the grenade over his shoulder as he leaves the room. Everyone is braced.”
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