ANDREW PIERCE: These feuding tribes have turned No.10 into a playground
Number Ten has long been a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and backstabbing as the power-hungry jostle for position at the court of the prime minister. But even by that yardstick, the events of recent days have been something to behold.
And the figure accused of being at the heart of the latest series of power struggles is not an MP, special adviser or civil servant. It is Carrie Symonds, fiancee of our Prime Minister and mother of his youngest son Wilfred.
Matters have become so fraught that, in the words of one former colleague – who now works for the influential Tory think tank the Bow Group – her ‘unelected and unaccountable’ role in government is ‘damaging to democracy’.
The figure accused of being at the heart of the latest series of power struggles is not an MP, special adviser or civil servant. It is Carrie Symonds, fiancee of our Prime Minister
To understand why the Conservative Party’s 32-year-old former director of communications is attracting such attention, it’s important to appreciate the scale of the bloodletting that has occurred behind Downing Street’s black door in recent weeks – and the feuding tribes who are driving it.
Special advisers, or Spads, the unelected train-bearers in the court of the prime minister, often wield more power and influence than seasoned Cabinet ministers.
But their machinations are normally conducted in the shadows. No longer.
To the horror of many Tory MPs, they have turned the Downing Street political operation into what appears to all intents and purposes a playground riven with bitter factional infighting.
In the past few weeks, the Government operation has been beset by leaks, rifts and resignations, leading to a spate of damaging headlines.
The unedifying turf war comes as the Covid death toll goes above 120,000, unemployment is rising fast, and the economy is a shattered ruin. ‘What must the public think of us with all these self-indulgent personality clashes?’ asks one exasperated Whitehall source.
The saga has its roots in the departure of Boris’s mercurial chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who was forced out following the axing of Number Ten’s truculent communications director Lee Cain.
Both were members of the Vote Leave camp which ran the 2016 referendum campaign – and they blame Symonds for their demise.
Their camp suffered another blow last week with the resignation of Oliver Lewis, the former deputy of Lord Frost, who was the Government’s chief negotiator with the EU over Brexit. Lewis, nicknamed Sonic because of his likeness to the video game character Sonic the Hedgehog, was head of the Cabinet Office unit fighting to stave off Scottish independence.
Lewis clashed with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who chairs the committee in charge of the Union
Gove, who was born in Aberdeen and whose parents still live there, wanted to love bomb the Scots in a bid to persuade them to stay true to the 313-year-old Union. But Lewis wanted a more aggressive approach
Even some Tory MPs wouldn’t know Lewis if they fell over him. But despite his low profile, his resignation matters. Nationalism in Scotland is on the march and Lewis’s departure after only two weeks in the job is a gift for Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP First Minister.
Lewis clashed with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who chairs the committee in charge of the Union.
Gove, who was born in Aberdeen and whose parents still live there, wanted to love bomb the Scots in a bid to persuade them to stay true to the 313-year-old Union. However, Lewis wanted to take a more aggressive approach.
So did Lewis walk out because of policy differences with Gove? Not a bit of it. After a testy meeting with Boris, and having threatened to resign on more than one occasion in the past, he quit accusing Carrie Symonds of briefing against him because she had taken sides with Gove on the Scottish question.
Lewis denies a report put about by his enemies that he had flounced out because he hadn’t been given a knighthood for his role in the Brexit talks.
It’s easy to see how his nose might have been put out of joint, however.
Lewis was close to Lord Frost, who was promoted to the Cabinet last week with responsibility for the EU and unfinished Brexit negotiations. While his boss got a peerage followed by a Cabinet job, there were no baubles for him.
But even Frost’s appointment was mired in controversy. His supporters argued that Gove had been too soft with Brussels since Brexit took effect on January 1. Frost, they said, would be more hardline.
The Gove camp suspect that the hostile briefings were the work of Lewis, an allegation that he denies.
Gove’s supporters insist he first suggested Frost’s elevation to the Cabinet. While the war of words raged over Frost and Gove, who is tipped for a big Cabinet promotion, the problems over goods going from mainland Britain into Northern Ireland since Brexit accelerated.
Carrie, who – as we have seen – has emerged as one of the most influential prime ministerial spouses of modern times, has her own group of loyalists.
They include Baroness Finn who last week became deputy chief of staff at No 10, and Henry Newman, who moved from advising Gove to working with Boris.
Carrie will be delighted with their arrival, but did she orchestrate it? Finn has known Boris since she raised funds for his 2008 mayoral campaign when Carrie was still at university.
Oxford and Harvard-educated Newman, meanwhile, worked closely alongside Boris and Gove on Brexit. ‘They got there on merit,’ said one source.
Carrie’s friends don’t deny she is influential, but argue that the criticism of her role is rooted in sexism.
One fan says: ‘She’s an important adviser to Boris in the same way Theresa May’s husband Philip was when she was prime minister. We should not be ashamed that Boris listens to his fiancee.’
However, Philip May was only occasionally seen and absolutely never heard, while Carrie has become linked with hirings and firings.
Last year, her close friend Nimco Ali was appointed a Home Office adviser on tackling violence against women. The post was not advertised in the usual way. Carrie’s influence was detected.
At this time of national crisis it is surely more vital than ever that the Government operates with determination and unity. Yet a Downing Street operation that should run like a Rolls-Royce has instead become a cauldron of poisonous rivalries. What must the voters think?
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