Cabinet in Crisis
Fergus Harris explores the situation at Number 10 and the implications for the Prime Minister’s Cabinet.
This month has been a stressful and dramatic one for Downing Street. The Prime Minister has had to work out new lockdown measures, try one last attempt to hash out a Brexit deal with the EU, and unveil government spending measures to help deal with the ‘economic emergency’ caused by coronavirus. For all these difficult tasks, Boris Johnson has needed nothing short of the utmost unity and support from his Cabinet. Yet, there has instead been rifts and discontent.
These divisions have not been a new feature – for months there have been long-running tensions and infighting at No. 10. But in recent weeks, this ‘slow burning fuse exploded fast’, as Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, described it. The key figures underpinning this power struggle were the Prime Minister’s political aides and Vote Leave campaign allies, Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings. Cain was director of communications and Johnson’s longest serving aide in No. 10, and it is thought that Cummings was behind the push to get Cain promoted to chief of staff in an attempt to further increase his influence over Boris Johnson.
However, Cain’s proposed promotion faced fierce resistance from many MPs, ministers, Johnson’s incoming press spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, as well as the Prime Minister’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Many in Parliament already felt that Johnson’s team was alienating the Prime Minister from his party, with members of the 1922 committee (the Conservative backbench parliamentary group) reportedly being angry at the way in which Cummings and Cain treated them. Charles Walker, the vice chair of the committee, said that there had been “unhappiness about the No 10 operation for some time”. Add to this the widespread criticism Cummings faced after his now-infamous trip to Barnard Castle and the Prime Minister’s refusal to fire him, tensions within No. 10 had reached a boiling point.
This ‘slow burning fuse exploded fast’
Instead of taking up the promotion, Cain went on to resign. It was clear that the opposition to his promotion was too serious a storm for Johnson to weather, and Cain could not have taken up the position. The director of communications’ departure simultaneously led to rumours that Cummings would leave as well. After his push to get Cain promoted failed, Cummings was left isolated in the halls of Downing Street. Despite already promising to make himself “redundant” by the end of the year, it became clear that Cummings’ time was also up. Left with little choice, the PM’s aide resigned.
The drama within Downing Street has been heavily criticised by the Labour Party, with Kier Starmer saying: ‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re all worried about our health and our families, we’re all worried about our jobs, and this lot are squabbling behind the door of Number 10’. The departure of Cain and Cummings has also been welcomed by many within the Conservative Party. For Johnson, it marks a significant blow; he lost two of his most important aides that helped him win the EU referendum and create the Boris Johnson persona we see today.
To make matters worse for the Prime Minister, just days later an unpublished report surfaced which incriminated the Home Secretary Priti Patel for ‘bullying’ civil servants in breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Sir Alex Allan, the Whitehall independent adviser on ministerial standards, said that the Home Secretary’s behaviour was “insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down”.
It marks a significant blow; he lost two of his most important aides
In response to the claims, Johnson decided not to fire Patel and expressed his “full confidence” in her. Normally, a member of the Cabinet would be forced to resign if they were found to have broken the ministerial code of conduct. Yet somehow Patel survived, and in response, Allan has resigned. The Prime Minister is now being accused of attempting get Allan to water down the report before it was finished. The whole affair has only served to mount further pressure on Johnson’s government.
So, what effect do these two controversies have? For the Prime Minister, it is a significant blow to public perspective. The Labour Party has gained more of a voice against a government that does not seem to have its affairs in order. Whilst many in the Conservative Party rejoiced at the dismissal of Cain and Cummings and thought it signalled a new turn for the Prime Minister, Johnson’s handling of the Patel affair would suggest otherwise.