One of Boris Johnson’s most senior aides resigned on Wednesday night after losing a highly public power struggle with the Prime Minister’s fiancee Carrie Symonds.
Lee Cain quit as Mr Johnson’s director of communications after Ms Symonds effectively vetoed his promotion to Downing Street chief of staff.
It came after an extraordinary briefing battle between allies of Ms Symonds and allies of Mr Cain – who include Mr Johnson’s most senior aide Dominic Cummings – exposed a civil war at the very heart of Number 10.
The departure of Mr Cain – who will leave his post at the end of the year – is likely to diminish the influence of his fellow Vote Leave veteran Mr Cummings, and will lead to inevitable questions about his future.
Mr Cain and Mr Cummings – two of the four most senior aides in the Prime Minister’s office – emerged as the losers in a high stakes gamble against Ms Symonds and Allegra Stratton, who will become the face of Downing Street when it begins daily televised press conferences, who had also objected to Mr Cain’s appointment.
Tory MPs had expressed “despair” about Downing Street being riven with in-fighting at a time of national crisis, with Mr Johnson facing having to pick sides between two of No 10’s most important women and his most senior aides.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, made his own intervention by telling backbench MPs they had a “higher duty to the people of this nation” and that the public are “relying on us” to get them through the pandemic. The comments at a meeting of the 1922 committee were seen by MPs as an instruction to focus on their jobs rather than becoming distracted by events in Downing Street.
On Wednesday night senior backbenchers urged Mr Johnson to use the crisis to “reset” his Downing Street operation by appointing an experienced party figure who could build bridges between Number 10 and the parliamentary party.
On a day of high drama in Downing Street, Ms Symonds led a revolt of Number 10 women against Mr Cain’s promotion by making it known that she objected to him becoming the Prime Minister’s right-hand man.
Allies of Ms Symonds said she was “uncomfortable” with the appointment, questioning Mr Cain’s suitability for the role.
Ms Stratton, who would have reported to Mr Cain in his new job, is also understood to have objected, with both women expressing unhappiness about Mr Cain’s at times abrasive manner, and questioning the communications strategy under his leadership.
But on Wednesday Mr Cain said that “after careful consideration I have this evening resigned as No10 director of communications and will leave the post at the end of the year”.
He confirmed he had been offered the post of chief of staff, saying it had been an “honour” to have been asked to serve in the role.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, described him as “a true ally and friend” who would be “much missed”.
Mr Cain will be replaced as director of communications by James Slack, currently the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, who has served both Mr Johnson and Theresa May in the civil service post.
Mr Johnson had approached Mr Cain at the weekend to discuss making him his chief of staff, only for Ms Symonds to raise objections, insiders said. A promotion for Mr Cain would have ensured that Mr Cummings’s authority was not challenged by a new face in the Prime Minister’s office.