Why does the resignation of Lee Cain matter?

Boris Johnson, sitting with his Director of Communications, Lee Cain (right)

Boris Johnson, sitting with his former Director of Communications, Lee Cain (right), with a stack of newspapers on the train. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson has lost his chief spin doctor after a power struggle in Downing Street.

Here are some of the key questions around the turmoil in Number 10.

What has happened?

Lee Cain is quitting the Number 10 operation, where he had been Johnson’s director of communications, although he will remain in post until the end of the year.

He had been offered a promotion to become the prime minister’s chief of staff, but a leak of that news prompted a backlash within the Tory ranks – reportedly including Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds – which effectively forced Cain out.

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Does this matter?

In Westminster there are always rumours of rifts and rows and speculation about who is on the way up and who is going down.

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But this is all playing out at a time when the country is in the grip of coronavirus, with the official death toll passing 50,000 and the true figure far higher.

The public might reasonably expect that at this moment of crisis those involved in running the country should be more focused on that than internal squabbling at the heart of government.

Why is Cain controversial?

Along with Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser, Cain was one of the key players in the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit who were brought into government by the prime minister.

He fought a divisive battle with the press which culminated in a walkout by senior members of the lobby – the reporters covering Westminster – after journalists from some outlets were banned from a briefing on UK-EU trade talks.

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.

What about other Downing Street figures?

Cummings was reportedly considering his position after Cain quit, but it appears he will remain in Number 10.

The position of Lord Frost, the Prime Minister’s Europe adviser, was also reported to be uncertain, although he too appears to be staying – but the fact there was speculation about it at a time when post-Brexit trade talks are at crisis point is another alarming sign that all is not well in Downing Street.

What next?

One of the triggers for the turmoil has been the appointment of Allegra Stratton to front the televised news conferences that Number 10 is planning. She is thought to have wanted direct access to the prime minister rather than reporting to Cain in order to do her job more effectively.

There is no fixed date yet for the start of those briefings, but 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 Johnson to compromise, although he has repeatedly insisted he is prepared to walk away without a deal.

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