On the 13th of November, PM Boris Johnson dismissed two of his key advisors in the Leave campaign and the 2019 General election victory: Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings.
From the beginning they aimed at radically transforming the relationship between Downing Street and the press.
Lee Cain introduced a new daily televised live press conference from Number 10, to bypass the traditional customary off-camera briefings to political editors from the UK’s main broadcasters.
“Wait till the glorious new government SMASHES the lobby and replaces it with truth and light,” Cummings told the Guardian in 2019.
The relationship between Boris Johnson’s Chief advisor and the press has been particularly complex for the last year.
The Barnard Castle scandal, back in May, was very much an example on what went wrong with Number 10’s public relations with the media. Having breached the legislation, Cummings himself had helped to draft, when first asked he did not admit it to it.
“He could have said ‘yes, I went there for child needs’—it would have been over; in a couple of days bad press at most. They thought they could braise in out in this aggressive belligerent way that is very much Lee Cain and Cummings’ style,” said Matthew Weaver, the Guardian journalists involved in the investigations.
Cummings attitude towards the press, comes from the belief that mainstream media would speak only for the metropolitan elites: the London ‘liberal media’. Then his breach of the lockdown rules would be a concern only for them and not to the rest of the population.
“He massively underestimated how much that this issue cut through with the population. And yet this guy had a very good understand during the referendum and the election on what does make those red seats that turned blue in the election,” Weaver says.
Yet the Prime Minister staunchly defended Cummings, despite 45 Tories’ endorsement of his resignation. Many people cited his behaviour as an excuse to breach lockdown rules.
Downing Street took 12 hours before releasing the first public statement. It wasn’t until May the 25th that Cummings held the press conference to admit his trip to Barnard castle with the alleged excuse that “he wanted to test his eyes”.
“We thought was absurd and insulting, because it came right at the end of the first phase lockdown, and people were sick to death to be in lockdown,” Weaver says.
On October 8, Allegra Stratton became the new press secretary of Number 10.
Together with Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, former director of the communications for the Tories, Stratton could abandon Cain and Cummings’ style.
There is also Munira Mirza, policy director at Number 10, who worked at city hall for Johnson. “Those three women ousted Cummings and Lee Cain overall,” says Weaver.
As they occupied their positions, Cummings and Cain took a zero-tolerance line on any leaking. The special adviser of former Chancellor Sajid Javid was marched out of Downing Street by police after some accusations by Cummings of leaking details of a no-deal Brexit to the press.
When Johnson pressured Javid to fire to fire his team, the latter resigned. This antagonism between Number 10 and the press has exacerbated in the last year.
“The finger of suspicion on the latest leak when the government was thinking about a second lockdown… seem to point to either Lee Cain or Cummings” says Weaver.
All sorts of leak enquiries were launched by Cummings and Ministers, but the suspect remains.
Stratton, Symons, Mirza saw then the opportunity to exploit this suspects and hasher in a more collegiate open set of tone by Downing Street.
Whether we are going to see a real shift in attitude, style and tones and whether this will result in more compromising stands on Brexit negotiations is still hard to forecast.
The lobby of hard Brexiters is still strong within the government even if they have lost the two most notable members.
Nonetheless, Mrs Symons has good links with the Tories as she runs some party operations. There will need to be a charm offence as Weaver says, that needs to be done with backbenchers to which Cummings was very dismissive.
1922 Committee backbenchers, MP Walker told BBC radio that the dismissive style by Cummings has created tensions: “the real opportunity here is for the chief of staff position to be filled by someone who has good links with the Conservative Party and its representation in the House of Commons,” Walker said.