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12 November 2020

Does Lee Cain’s resignation signal a change of direction for Boris Johnson’s government?

Even if further members of Team Cummings leave, Downing Street’s Brexit strategy may remain intransigent.

By Stephen Bush

Lee Cain, the Prime Minister’s communications director, will leave his post at the end of the year. Why does that matter? Because for several months, an argument has been raging in Downing Street over the direction the government should take. Should it double down on the approach it took at the general election – promising to spend more on the NHS and schools, with hefty doses of culture war – or should it revert to the approach that Boris Johnson favoured at City Hall, of offering social and economic liberalism. 

​​​​​​Or, to put it more simply: should Johnson govern like Dominic Cummings or like David Cameron? Cain is a Vote Leave alumnus, who is a close associate of Cummings, and was Johnson’s special adviser during his time as foreign secretary and as a plotting backbencher. He was a key bulwark against those arguing that Johnson should revert to his 2008-2016 liberalist playbook. 

Adding a further element of tension to this are two looming deadlines. The first, and more trivial, is the arrival of Allegra Stratton as the person who will front the government’s televised briefings. The reality is that Stratton will very quickly become the face of the government, and that anyone who does that will de facto become the Prime Minister’s most important communications adviser if they do the job well. 

The second and more important factor is the end of the Brexit talks. Is Downing Street really trying to reach a deal with the EU: is it willing to do what Johnson did in October last year – make a series of concessions to get one, thus minimising the upfront disruption of leaving the bloc and preventing a potentially painful start to 2021? Or does Downing Street want a no-deal Brexit: ie, to have the disruption upfront and over before the next election, and to be able to blame the European Union for the economic consequences, not only of no-deal but of any hangover from the Covid-19 crisis? 

More than any prime minister we have had in the democratic era, Johnson is adviser-led. The exit of Cain, and with it the strengthening of Stratton, means that many assume big changes of approach are looming. Are they right?

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Johnson’s desire to be liked and his fondness for unifying messages – note that he opted to stay silent on the more divisive issue of the Colston statue, but was happy to speak out in defence of Winston Churchill’s, a proposition that unites all but a tiny minority of Brits – means that the Johnson-Cummings alliance has always been an unwieldy and unstable one outside of Brexit. Cummings’s approach of snarling aggression has created a fractious and recalcitrant parliamentary party, and a change of approach on that front was always likely, regardless of whether he stays or leaves in solidarity with Cain.

But I wouldn’t be so sure that a change of approach on domestic issues – note, for instance, Johnson’s greater focus on climate change, and his lack of interest in wading into a manufactured culture war over the National Trust – means a change of approach on Brexit. While Johnson is heavily adviser-led, he does have a handful of passions and preoccupations on which he has strongly held opinions. Euroscepticism is one: from his antics as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent through to his decision to put Brexit before both his social and ideological ties to the Cameron project in 2016 and his Foreign Office post in 2018. And many of those who want to abandon the Cummings approach are themselves committed Brexiteers – they just aren’t committed supporters of Vote Leave.

So the shift within Downing Street matters and will change some of how Johnson’s government acts. But as far as the biggest decision that the government will make this week over Brexit, don’t be surprised if the UK’s approach continues to be marked by intransigence, even if it is accompanied by the exodus of further members of Team Cummings.