When the call came from Downing Street, I dozed off. I had fallen asleep last night with my black government-issued cell phone on my chest while trying to catch up on the endless emails that are the bane of a special adviser's life.
A minute or so of courtesies and then down to business. “Those leaks in the travel corridors, mate. If they keep going we have to start shooting people. & # 39;
I liked the official who issued this unsubtle threat – still – but was upset by the implication that my Transportation department was secretly generating unfavorable reporting on the government's quarantine strategy for people flying to the UK during the pandemic.
Whatever the objections to the quarantine – and it had a devastating impact on our airlines and airports – it was a set policy and we at the Department of Transportation (DfT) had an obligation to make it work. So no leaks, no negative briefing. We stuck to that.
A world completely dominated by Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the prime minister, and his ally Lee Cain, director of communications on Downing Street
Something else irritated me – the student's Mafioso language was supposed to create fear. Shoot people, for God's sake. I mean grow up.
But that exchange was natural in the new world I had joined, a world where bullying and intimidation were the norm. A world completely dominated by Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the prime minister, and his ally Lee Cain, director of communications on Downing Street.
And that early morning call would set in motion the events that led to my release from Cain.
After 25 years in national newspapers, I had taken on the job of Special Media Advisor – also known as Spad – with some apprehension. Journalism is a difficult world, but for the most part an uncomplicated one.
I was hoping I could spend some time in government highlighting the good things: investing more in road, rail, and green technology, especially in the north where I'm from. While not being partisan, I fully subscribed to the Prime Minister's vision of "rebuilding better" and providing Britain with an infrastructure appropriate for a large country in the 21st century.
Your supporters in Downing Street's Vote Leave group, the advisors who came to power as a result of the referendum campaign, are now busy trying to find Carrie Symonds (pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019), the Prime Minister's partner and briefly a former Tory communications director for her death
I was lucky with my Secretary of State Grant Shapps. Enthusiastic and hardworking (our first conversation may have been at 6:30 a.m. before the morning TV and radio round and the last one late at night) he was a decent, rational, and effective boss. But there are others who enjoy politics just for the power, the prestige, the drama of everything. And we've seen a lot of drama with the fall of Cummings and Cain in the past few days.
There are people who will say this is Westminster bubble navel gazing, an indecent distraction given the dual threats this country faces: Covid-19 and the uncertainty over a Brexit trade deal. But the end of the Cummings-Cain duopoly is important.
It is said that in government "advisers advise and ministers decide". This is important for our democracy because the ministers are elected by us and can be examined in parliament and around the world. The power conferred on the unelected Cummings and Cain over the past 16 months has been exaggerated and destabilizing, and has viciously struck the heart of the government.
The concentration of that power in a cabal formed during the EU exit campaign has led to the infantilization of Cabinet Ministers, who are forever looking over their shoulders, and the marginalization of the Tory backers who brought Boris Johnson there , where he is .
"I was released by Cain in September after investigating a newspaper leak concerning the quarantine of people returning from Spain," writes Neil Tweedie (picture).
There's something else too – the caustic effects of a clique that relied on strong arms tactics and the use of secret media briefings to get their agenda through.
A government cannot preach morality in public life if it tolerates abuse within its own ranks. The two cannot be separated.
I've seen this abuse of power firsthand, and it wasn't pretty. And I've heard from others about their brutal treatment by Cummings and Cain. The mafia language in that call from a Downing Street agent was not an accident. Fear was their tool.
I was released by Cain in September after investigating a newspaper leak concerning the quarantine of people returning from Spain. I was not involved in this leak and protested my innocence face to face. So I don't mourn the fact that he has now been "beaten" in true Mafia style. Forget the spin – neither Cain nor Cummings jumped. I firmly believe that they have been pushed and not prematurely.
It was a groundbreaking ceremony that Cain (pictured on Thursday) gained Johnson's confidence as he stepped down as Secretary of State and returned to the back benches to oppose Theresa May's Brexit policies
Cain was fitted with his concrete boots on Wednesday evening after falling out for the title of chief of staff at No. 10. He was the only man Cummings would have tolerated in this role, so protective was he on his own.
Your supporters in Downing Street's Vote Leave group, the advisors who came to power as a result of the referendum campaign, are now busy blaming Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister's partner and, in short, a former Tory communications director, responsible for her death do.
But it was hubris that brought Cain and Cummings to the East River. They might have been clever, but they weren't wise.
What I remember most of the three months I spent in government is the isolation of this couple and their ubiquitous influence.
I only got Cain right twice, once to get hired and once to get fired. Cummings, whom I never spoke to, at least not personally. But you could feel their presence in the voices of those who served them.
This was not a collegiate government, but people working together towards a common goal, but rather a court dominated by two overpowering lieutenants whose decision-making was largely a mystery.
Your supporters in Downing Street's Vote Leave faction, the advisors who came to power as a result of the referendum campaign, are now busy blaming Carrie Symonds (pictured in March).
Spads are politically appointed civil servants who are paid by the taxpayer, and while subject to the Code of Conduct of the Public Service, they are the creatures of the ruling party. There are roughly 100 of them spread across the various ministries, with a large contingent in No. 10.
They are divided into political and media areas and, in the past, were largely chosen by the secretaries of state they served.
It's the strangest job. Spads work in the shadows, are never publicly quoted, oil the wheels of the government, facilitate return channel agreements between ministers and inform journalists on a non-attributable basis.
In truth, Spads are more powerful than junior ministers and much stronger than elected backers.
Both Cummings and Cain had been spads, and they used that network to gather power. When I came to DfT, it became very clear to me that I was happy to be at their disposal. My loyalty was to them and not to my foreign minister.
Cummings had made control of the Spad network a condition of his employment at No. 10 – and as the architect of the campaign and 2019 election victory, he got what he asked for.
He was delighted with his influence on his "troops" and ordered them to attend mandatory early morning meetings or late Friday meetings where he made it clear who was the boss. “If you leave, your department security chief will walk you from your desk, have your passport removed and you will be released. You have no rights. & # 39;
And Dom, supposedly a man only interested in good government ideas (do me a favor), was as good as his word. Sonia Khan, a media pad for then Chancellor Sajid Javid, was actually marched out of Downing Street by an armed police officer after Cummings confronted her – an experience that continues to traumatize her to this day.
Cummings threatened to resign over Cain's departure, but his bluff was called by the prime minister (pictured leaving Downing Street on Friday)
It wasn't until Thursday, when Cummings appeared to be heading for the exit, that the government was able to silently resolve a legal challenge it had submitted.
I visited some of the so called "Spad School" via Zoom (luckily) because I was banned.
One click of the video button and there he was, Dominic Cummings, the most powerful unelected man in Britain. He behaved like that, sitting at the end of the cabinet table with the Union flag draped behind him.
Here was Kim Il-Cummings, apparently trying to explain to the nation how regrettably democracy must be suspended in order to save people from themselves.
But instead of the Mao suit, Dom's clothes were pure weekend dad. T-shirt or sweatshirt, jeans maybe – studied scruffiness and shouted Silicon Valley blue-sky thinking.
Dom liked to start his Zoom conferences with a pithy monologue in which he belittled the stories of political journalists – the "reptiles," as he called them. He knew these comments were going to run out. How could they not overhear the world's biggest rumors with Spads?
This, of course, was Dom's way of getting his message across without asking difficult questions. A reasonable policy given his less than convincing performance at a May press conference at Garden 10 during which he sought to justify violating the first lockdown (a draconian house arrest policy he encouraged) by following with his family Barnard Castle drove to County Durham to "test his eyesight".
Then it got down to business. Dom uncorked his genius and recommended this or that (incredibly tedious) book for (compulsory) reading before bed or explained how he wanted to rid the dead wood of running public bodies by encouraging people outside of the Quangocracy to take up roles apply (not a bad idea in principle).
The sermon was delivered in a world-weary, educated, northeastern monotone, like a bored university lecturer longing for the end of the semester. And if you listened, you'd think, "This guy is a dilettante who pretends to get things done while exercising his ego."
Come on and think about it, what did he achieve in # 10? Not much, really, apart from the sacking of some senior officials – his Bugbears since he was spad for Michael Gove in the Department of Education.
Cummings was Gove's protégé. But even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not immune to his creation. As recently as this month, Gove's house was raided by investigators from the Cabinet Office seeking evidence of who leaked the details of the current lockdown.
Nobody was safe from Dom and Lee. And leak tests, like the one I fell victim to, was one of the weapons they used.
Of course, # 10 has leaked with incontinent regularity, posting stories that would help get their agenda through. It was part of the game – do what I say, don't do what I do.
The Vote Leave Mob, drunk with their success in the referendum and elections, believed they were inviolable. They reveled in their slender, iconoclastic, controversial approach. The land was their toy. Always vigilant of the inadequacies of those who viewed them as inferior, they were at the same time blind to their own obvious inadequacies as communicators and administrators.
Nursing Homes, Test and Trace, PSA, A Level Results, what you call it. The debacle followed the debacle, but for them it was always someone else's fault.
Daily government is not like a campaign that Cummings and Cain made their reputation on. A virus in the air doesn't give a fig for slogans or promises about moon shots. Cain was less visible than Cummings, and news of his dismissal was received indifferently by most. But he had tremendous power, not least when Covid laid down most of Downing Street.
As a former Red Top journalist (who famously dressed up as a chicken (pictured 2010) to track David Cameron during an election campaign on behalf of the Labor-backing Daily Mirror), his big break in political media relations came when he landed at Job Vote leave
As a former Red Top journalist (who dressed up as a chicken during an election campaign on behalf of the Labor-backing Daily Mirror to stalk David Cameron), his big break in political media relations came when he got a job at Vote Leave.
As Spad, Cain earned Johnson's confidence when he resigned as Secretary of State and returned to the back benches to oppose Theresa May's Brexit policies.
Johnson may regret the loss of this loyal lieutenant, but business is business. Cain made too many enemies. But his main mistake was believing he could do anything he wanted, and in my case he fired me for something he knew I hadn't.
The charge against me was nonsense, a fact Grant Shapps Cain made clear. We at DfT were aware of the likely identity of the leak in the story, and Cain even mentioned him as a suspect in our last meeting. In my resignation letter, the Cabinet Office noted that "no determination has been made that you are held responsible" regarding the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.
It didn't do any good. When I was called to his sprawling, wood-paneled office at # 10, I was told I was behaving suspiciously by deleting numbers from the call log on my personal phone (which I offered the leak investigation to investigate, although I was not legally obliged to do so).
When I explained that I deleted old calls so that only the ones that need to be handled would stand out, he replied, "As a Spad, you should never delete calls from your home phone, don't you know?" I replied & # 39; No. & # 39; But I told him without a doubt that I had never taught against the government. His answer? "You fired yourself."
I glanced at the framed front cover of the Daily Mirror on his wall. "Boris hires Mirror Chicken as a consultant," read the headline. My God, was I really fired from a man dressed up as a chicken? It was the only thing that made me laugh that day.
Now Cain has actually fired himself too. He outdid himself and was sent to pack up by a coalition of his many enemies.
Cummings threatened to resign over Cain's departure, but his bluff was called by the Prime Minister. Last night they cleared their desks and left No. 10. Your power supply is interrupted and can – should not – be rebuilt.
This Scorsesian drama has ramifications well beyond Westminster. It's a crossroads in the path of this young but battle-hardened government. Hopefully Johnson will use it to restart Operation No. 10, ushering in an era of more conciliatory, consensual government, commensurate with respect for ministers and MPs who can sometimes differ in their opinions.
Cummings loves books, and Anna Karenina is a favorite. "Everyone is thinking of changing the world, but nobody is thinking of changing themselves," wrote Tolstoy. Dom, who has been described as a genius, will now have more time to ponder the fact that really great men never believe their own advertisement.
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