Which of you voted Carrie “I slept my way to the top” Symonds to be Prime Minister?
Article from the Times…
Last weekend Lord Frost, the architect of the Brexit deal, made clear to the prime minister that he was prepared to walk away.
Already concerned that he was being marginalised in his amorphous role as Boris Johnson’s Brexit adviser, his fears were reinforced by the announcement of Baroness Finn as deputy chief of staff and Henry Newman as a senior adviser in No 10.
Both are allies of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s fiancée. As a special adviser with no officials working under him, Frost realised his influence — and role in setting the post-Brexit agenda — was rapidly waning.
Frost told Johnson that his mind was made up and he was leaving No 10. Johnson, who values Frost’s counsel and ability above most in government, would not have it.
He appointed Frost as a minister of state in the Cabinet Office and handed him responsibility for overseeing Britain’s relationship with Europe. He will also chair the committee responsible for talks on easing trade restrictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
At a stroke Frost had made himself a central player while sidelining Gove, who was summarily stripped of his Brexit responsibilities. “Frost made clear he was prepared to walk away and he wasn’t bluffing,” one Whitehall source said. “He got everything he asked for and more.” Despite his power grab, one aide noted that Frost had, in effect, managed to negotiate a pay cut. His £120,000 salary as a special adviser will fall to about £100,000 as a minister.
The high-stakes move by Frost is a microcosm of the increasingly febrile atmosphere in No 10 as competing groups vie for the prime minister’s attention and patronage.
Yesterday Oliver Lewis, Frost’s deputy in the Brexit negotiations and an ally of Dominic Cummings, left the building. He had just been handed a new job devising a strategy to help save the Union but went after being blamed by Symonds and her allies for leaks suggesting that Gove had been deliberately sidelined by Johnson.
An ally of Lewis said: “On Thursday the prime minister bollocked Oliver [for leaking], so he reached the conclusion that Carrie was in charge now and the prime minister wasn’t going to have his back any more. It’s a complete Carrie takeover.”
Ben Gascoigne, the prime minister’s political secretary who has known him since his City Hall days, also threatened to leave after being disconcerted by Finn’s appointment. He has received assurances and is now expected to stay, but at least two other senior figures are said to be considering their positions.
“It is not a happy place at all,” one government source said. “There are too many factions to be contained in one small building all competing for one man’s attention and power.”
Those factions can be broadly placed into four main groups. The first is made up of long-standing Johnson aides, some of whom worked for him in city hall, and who he brought with him when he entered Downing Street. The second is the remnants of Team Cummings and the former Vote Leave apparatus whose voices were dominant until December when Cummings was forced out.
Then there is the group made mainly of officials under the new cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who have allied themselves with Johnson’s new chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, a former Treasury official. They are said to be increasingly influential.
Finally there is a group of aides who are seen as trusted friends of Symonds, who was a powerful Tory figure long before her relationship with Johnson. One ally of the prime minister said: “The trouble is that it is turning into the court of Henry VIII. Wolsey [Cummings] has had the chop and it all depends on who Anne Boleyn favours now.”
Friends of Symonds are infuriated by her depiction by critics as a Lady Macbeth figure, but they do not deny that she carries significant influence.
Symonds was instrumental in removing Cummings as an adviser and Lee Cain as director of communications. She also played a key role in bringing Finn and Newman into senior roles.
“This is her tribe, these are her people,” one friend said. “If she wasn’t [engaged] to Boris then she’d be working for him in a senior position in Downing Street. They are a loving couple and he values her opinion but she is a force in her own right.”
Finn worked with Newman for nearly five years in the Cameron government when they were both aides to the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. Finn is a former girlfriend of Gove but also knows Johnson well, having run his fundraising campaign when he first stood as mayor of London.
One source said that Finn had never been a natural ally of the prime minister and in fact had been a key member of the group of Gove aides who persuaded him to “pull the rug out” from under Johnson in the 2016 leadership race.
More recently Symonds and Finn have become close, with the latter hosting a birthday party at which Gove and Johnson were present. That close contact continued after Johnson entered Downing Street and, before Covid, the two were known to meet for drinks in the House of Lords.
The appointments of Finn and Newman could have repercussions for Rosenfield, who was brought into Downing Street in December as part of the government’s “reset”. So far he has divided opinion. There is concern that political advisers are being shut out of key meetings, with Rosenfeld bringing in officials to brief the prime minister before key decisions.
He is said to have sided with the Treasury over universal credit in deciding to extend the £20-a-week increase for six months rather than a year, a decision many ministers believe will prove to be disastrous. “He appears to have no political antennae, he just nods along to everything officials say,” an insider said. “He is interested in big captains of industry but shows very little interest in our voters.”
Another said: “The Downing Street special advisers are not really in the picture. It’s all ‘Simon Case phoned up our permanent secretary’ or ‘Dan called us in for a meeting on this’. That’s how things are happening.”
Rosenfield’s performance in Friday Zoom briefings with special advisers has been likened to David Brent from The Office. “He keeps saying we’ll all go down the pub and get pissed when the lockdown is over and going on about Manchester United,” one aide said. “There’s a lot of false bonhomie.”
He suggested at one meeting that there should be a revolving door with Conservative Party HQ, with special advisers moving to party headquarters and party officials going to work in departments. This was taken by some as a tacit threat that they could be removed from their roles.
Another aide said that Rosenfield had been “a bit cheesy” on the calls “but at least he’s trying”. “It’s difficult to manage loads of people on Zoom,” they said. “He’s trying to build bridges.”
Others put such griping down to discontent among political aides who have seen their influence wane since Rosenfield took a firmer grip of the Downing Street machine and brought back key civil servants to the decision-making process.
One Whitehall source said that the appointment of Rosenfield had brought much more structure. They said he had developed a close working relationship with Case with decisions being made in a more formalised way and access to the prime minister controlled. They conceded that this was resented by some political advisers whose influence and access to Johnson has been reduced.
“Given how much focus there is on the prime minister it’s inevitable that everyone is going to fight over him,” they said. “And if you think you can go into the prime minister and get a decision reversed because it’s not what you want you are going to feel frustrated. But the job of the prime minister’s chief of staff is to stop that from happening. It’s different from how it was in the Cummings era most definitely.”
The arrival of Finn threatens to cause ructions with Rosenfield. One source said that her appointment as a political gatekeeper was Symonds’s idea and had been imposed without the involvement of Rosenfeld, who favoured another former civil servant, Eleanor Shawcross, for the role.
“She [Finn] gets on very well with Carrie,” an insider said. “That’s where this situation came from. I am not entirely sure that [Rosenfield] is comfortable with it.”
Another source said: “Simone’s appointment was presented to Dan as a fait accompli. He had absolutely no say in the matter. That’s not the best start to the relationship.” This version of events is denied by No 10, which says Rosenfield would have been happy with either Finn or Shawcross and that ultimately it was the prime minister’s decision.
Johnson did not consult his long-standing city hall aide and former chief of staff, Eddie Lister. A source said that he had “never even met Finn”.
“Carrie is not a pushover by any means and there are times when Boris just wants a quiet life. That is part of what’s going on here,” the source said.
Other advisers complain that Rosenfield seems to want to stock Downing Street with civil servants in roles once occupied by political appointments. He is said to believe that Munira Mirza’s policy unit should be filled with more civil servants. When the prime minister sacked Luke Graham, a former MP, as his Union unit chief this month, Rosenfield is said to have asked whether his replacement should be a civil servant. Instead, Johnson chose Oliver Lewis, a protege of Cummings.
Allies of Rosenfeld say that it is too early to write him off. “Things have settled down well between him and Simon [Case].He’s a really good operator, he’s like Jeremy Heywood. “[Finn] is not the smartest when it comes to Whitehall politics. I think Dan will find that he can manage her. She will be in schmooze mode and that will be fine. He will see off Simone and Henry quite happily.”
Another source added: “Dan is a very interesting man. He is very well connected, bright and organised with no side to him at all. He’s not political. I think he will be very loyal to Boris.”
The biggest loser from the power plays of the past fortnight appears to have been Gove, who has lost influence. While there are now five former advisers to Gove in Downing Street — Finn, Newman, Henry Cook, Meg Powell-Chandler and Declan Lyons — their loyalty now lies with Johnson. Newman and Finn are said to be regularly invited into the Downing Street flat by Johnson and Symonds, but one source said that Gove “never crosses the threshold”.
He is being considered for a move in the reshuffle, which is expected in June, to either health or the home office. Even that, however, is fraught with difficulties, not least the fact that removing Priti Patel would mean that all the great offices of state would be occupied by men.
One source said that years after Gove’s coup against Johnson during the 2016 leadership campaign, there remains a “trust deficit” between the two men. “I would think that the PM might well want to move Gove and the Home Office would be an inspired idea,” one source said waspishly. “It’s a graveyard.”
Baroness Finn New deputy chief of staff. Hosted Symonds’s 30th birthday celebrations.
Henry Newman Former Gove adviser and longstanding friend of Symonds
Ross Kempsell Ex-journalist who re-entered Downing Street after the purge of Cummings
CITY HALL LOYALISTS
Ben Gascoigne Johnson’s longest serving aide who worked for him at City Hall and the Foreign Office
Sir Edward Lister Former chief of staff and trusted fixer
Munira Mirza Head of Johnson’s policy unit. Worked for him when he was the mayor of London
Ben Warner Brought in by Cummings to reorganise how the government uses data
Alex Hickman Longstanding Brexiteer who oversees No 10’s business outreach team
Dan Rosenfield Former senior Treasury official brought into replace Cummings and Lister as Johnson’s chief of staff
Simon Case Britain’s youngest cabinet secretary, aged 42. Was promoted by Johnson