Johnson Moves to Restore Order After Senior U.K. Aide Quits

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to contain a bitter power struggle that caused his senior media adviser to quit and threatened to break apart his tight-knit inner circle.

Lee Cain announced he was standing down as Johnson’s political communications director on Wednesday evening, but by Thursday morning a replacement had already been lined up: the premier’s official spokesman, James Slack.

Cain’s resignation went down badly with his close ally and friend Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most powerful -- and controversial -- adviser, while the U.K.’s two most senior Brexit aides, David Frost and Oliver Lewis, were also unhappy, people familiar with the matter said.

All three have decided to stay in their roles for now at least, rather than risk escalating an already damaging dispute into a full-blown crisis for Johnson.

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick on Thursday insisted the government is not being distracted by upheaval in Johnson’s office. “All of us, whether it’s his advisers or the Cabinet, are focused on the big task, which is tackling the pandemic,” Jenrick told BBC radio.

Chief of Staff

Yet the row risks destabilizing Johnson’s top team at a highly sensitive moment, with the U.K. battling the pandemic and entering the final days of negotiations over a vital trade deal with the European Union.

According to one version of events, Cain and Cummings lobbied the prime minister to make Cain chief of staff. But Johnson was unhappy that the potential appointment was made public in Wednesday’s newspapers before he had reached a final decision, people familiar with the matter said.

By Wednesday evening, Cain decided he had to go and issued a resignation statement saying he had been offered the role of chief of staff, without explaining why he hadn’t accepted.

Johnson Moves to Restore Order After Senior U.K. Aide Quits

Both Cummings and Cain are staunch backers of the Brexit project and worked with Johnson on the Vote Leave referendum campaign in 2016. Cain went on to serve as Johnson’s senior press aide in his role as foreign secretary. While he will remain in his job to oversee the transition to a new communications team at the year-end, Cain’s influence will be severely diminished after resigning.

With the premier’s inner team of Brexit-backing aides reeling from the row, there may yet be implications for U.K. policy toward the EU.

‘True Ally’

Cain has been at Johnson’s side for years and his influence on the premier, alongside that of Cummings, is often under-stated. Johnson thanked Cain, a former tabloid journalist, for his years of service and described him as “a true ally and friend,” adding: “He will be much missed.”

As the person responsible for the government’s communications strategy, Cain has come under scrutiny during the coronavirus pandemic, with Johnson’s operation at times criticized by members of his own Conservative Party for lacking clear messaging and stumbling from one crisis to another.

“There’s been unhappiness about the Number 10 operation for some time,” Charles Walker, vice chairman of the influential 1922 committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, told BBC radio. “We’ve heard far too much from advisers over the last 18 months,” he said. “Members of Parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process.”

Cain’s departure coincides with the appointment of a new key press secretary, Allegra Stratton, a former journalist who is due to lead televised White House-style briefings for the government.

“It was an honor to be asked to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff” and a “privilege” to serve as Johnson’s adviser for the past three years, Cain said.

The opposition Labour Party said Cain’s resignation shows government officials are divided and failing to focus on the right priorities. “Boris Johnson’s government is fighting like rats in a sack over who gets what job,” Labour said in an emailed statement. “It is precisely this lack of focus and rank incompetence that has held Britain back.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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