As the Downing Street pyschodrama raging between Dominic Cummings and Carrie Symonds reached its climax last November, the departing adviser had one final encounter with Boris Johnson before collecting his belongings.
According to one version of the meeting, held in Mr Johnson’s No 10 office, Mr Cummings told the Prime Minister that he hoped they would be able to maintain a constructive relationship, despite him losing a bitter power struggle with Ms Symonds.
It was even suggested that the two men could work together again in the future.
But the conversation came to a swift end when Mr Cummings said that he would not maintain cordial relations if Ms Symonds or the FoCs – Friends of Carrie – briefed against him to the media. ‘I can’t control her,’ Mr Johnson is said to have replied. ‘Its impossible.’
Unsurprisingly, this version of events is denied by Johnson loyalists. ‘This is a completely inaccurate account of that meeting, which was entirely cordial,’ a senior Government source said last night. ‘They agreed to stay in touch. This has proved to be impossible. What followed was a series of nasty and sexist briefings against Carrie.’
According to one version of the meeting, held in Mr Johnson’s No 10 office, Mr Cummings told the Prime Minister that he hoped they would be able to maintain a constructive relationship, despite him losing a bitter power struggle with Ms Symonds (pictured with Boris Johnson and their dog Dilyn)
The tensions, which came to a head in a row over now-abandoned televised briefings, have continued to simmer in the five months since – boiling over again last week when No 10 accused Mr Cummings of being behind damaging leaks such as the text message exchanges between Mr Johnson and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, and the ‘chatty rat’ disclosure of plans to introduce a second lockdown in November.
‘Nuclear Dom’ hit back on Friday, with a 1,000-word blog denying the claims, calling Mr Johnson ‘unethical’, and accusing him of burying the official report into the ‘rat’ because it implicated one of Ms Symonds’s friends.
Despite strenuous official denials, other sources have also suggested that Mr Johnson sometimes finds it ‘challenging’ to balance the ‘expectations’ of Ms Symonds with all of his responsibilities.
One claimed the Prime Minister had voiced ‘despair’ to colleagues during November’s dramas about being ‘hemmed in’ by his fiancee over issues such as staffing and her policy preferences.
Another said: ‘The No 10 private office has noticed that Boris seems to be working later and later into the night. He is not exactly known to be a workaholic, so the interpretation is that he is reluctant to go up to the flat.’
Downing Street robustly denies these claims as ‘b******s’.
But regardless of her actual influence, there is no doubt that Ms Symonds is perceived to hold considerable sway over the Prime Minister. This seemed to strengthen after two of her closest friends, Henry Newman and Simone Finn, won jobs as senior advisers in Downing Street in the wake of Mr Cummings’s departure.
Applicants for jobs in the administration talk openly about whether Carrie ‘likes me enough’ to stand a chance of being successful.
The conversation came to a swift end when Mr Cummings (pictured) said that he would not maintain cordial relations if Ms Symonds or the FoCs – Friends of Carrie – briefed against him to the media
Many in No 10 trace the origin of Mr Cummings’s antipathy to Ms Symonds to her insistence during the chaos of the Covid first wave on making a formal complaint to The Times via the press watchdog Ipso over a report which said her dog Dilyn had behavioural issues.
‘Half of the press office was tied up drafting a statement,’ says a source. ‘The PM was yelling about how it had to be actioned… He only realised later how ridiculous it made us look.’
Mr Cummings’s resentment over the episode is one reason that friends of Ms Symonds blamed him for negative stories about Dilyn, including the allegation that the dog relieved himself over an adviser’s handbag and chewed his way through valuable furniture at Chequers.
The friends say Mr Cummings is using Dilyn to wage a ‘proxy war’ on Ms Symonds.
While the ‘war over Dilyn’ lends a faintly farcical air to the feud, it is clearly the Covid pandemic which carries the greatest political threat to Mr Johnson.
On May 26, Mr Cummings will give evidence to the joint parliamentary committee inquiry into lessons the Government must learn from the response to the pandemic – and No 10 is worried.
Sources claim that Mr Cummings has notes of comments made by the Prime Minister shortly after the second lockdown was triggered in which he vowed it would be the last. Political and Civil Service advisers are said to have heard Mr Johnson say he would tolerate a high death toll rather than order another lockdown.
Downing Street fears that even if Mr Cummings does not cite the specific language allegedly used by the Prime Minister, he will tell MPs the Government’s failure to lock down quickly enough cost lives.
In the extraordinary blog he posted on Friday, the former adviser rubbished claims that he was behind the leak of the Dyson texts, saying he ‘was not directly or indirectly a/the source for the BBC/Kuenssberg story on the PM/Dyson texts’, and that the screenshots had been leaked to the BBC by disaffected civil servants.
Despite strenuous official denials, other sources have also suggested that Mr Johnson sometimes finds it ‘challenging’ to balance the ‘expectations’ of Ms Symonds with all of his responsibilities
This newspaper revealed last week that senior Tories feared that a network of Labour moles – dubbed Redthroat – was operating at the heart of Whitehall, feeding documents and intelligence to Sir Keir Starmer’s aides, who then farmed out the information to favoured media outlets.
Mr Cummings also denied being the ‘chatty rat’, saying Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had ‘told the PM that the lockdown leak was neither me nor the then Director of Communications [Lee Cain] and that ‘all the evidence definitely leads to Henry Newman and others in that office’.
He added: ‘The PM was very upset about this. He said to me afterwards, ‘If Newman is confirmed as the leaker then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie as they’re best friends… [pause] Perhaps we could get the Cabinet Secretary to stop the leak inquiry?’ ‘
Mr Cummings went on: ‘I told him that this was ‘mad’ and totally unethical, that he had ordered the inquiry himself and authorised the Cabinet Secretary to use more invasive methods than are usually applied to leak inquiries because of the seriousness of the leak.
‘I told him that he could not possibly cancel an inquiry about a leak that affected millions of people, just because it might implicate his girlfriend’s friends. I refused to try to persuade the Cabinet Secretary to stop the inquiry and instead I encouraged the Cabinet Secretary to conduct the inquiry without any concern for political ramifications.
‘I told the Cabinet Secretary that I would support him regardless of where the inquiry led. I warned some officials that the PM was thinking about cancelling the inquiry. They would give evidence to this effect under oath to any inquiry. I also have WhatsApp messages with very senior officials about this matter which are definitive.’
He concluded ominously: ‘It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.
‘I will not engage in media briefing regarding these issues but will answer questions about any of these issues to Parliament on 26 May for as long as the MPs want.’
Allies of Mr Newman yesterday reiterated his denials about being responsible and doubled down on the allegation that it was Mr Cummings.
One said: ‘The inquiry has moved on since Dom left government but even back in November senior officials [ie Civil Servants] dismissed the idea that Henry Newman had been singled out or that Dom or Lee had been exonerated. A senior official said that the investigation is still live.
‘It would be wrong to think we have landed on any one individual or, for that matter, completely exonerated anyone.’
Mr Cummings’s resentment over the episode is one reason that friends of Ms Symonds blamed him for negative stories about Dilyn, including the allegation that the dog relieved himself over an adviser’s handbag and chewed his way through valuable furniture at Chequers. Pictured: Cummings leaving Downing Street in November
The ally added: ‘In fact Henry Newman did not even attend the relevant meeting. In November Newman was not working in Downing Street and did not attend the meetings from which details were leaked. The allegations are false.’
Another source claimed the intelligence services had identified Mr Cummings as the culprit ‘but could not publish their evidence because it would reveal the secrets of their tradecraft, including their penetration of WhatsApp messages’.
In his blog, Mr Cummings accused Mr Johnson’s new Director of Communications, Jack Doyle, of being responsible for last week’s briefings. However, it has since emerged that it was the PM himself who rang newspaper editors to make the claims – which is likely to be interpreted by Mr Cummings as being at the behest of Ms Symonds.
The move has been described as Mr Johnson ‘striking his foot in to the hornets’ nest’, with one official saying: ‘Never get into a briefing war with Dom. There is only ever one victor.’
But a No 10 insider said: ‘There is absolutely nothing Boris could do to stop Cummings throwing hand grenades. He is set on trying to bring down the PM.’
The drama dovetailed last week with the latest twist in the saga of the daily White House-style televised briefings which hastened Mr Cummings’s exit last year. Allegra Stratton, the Symonds ally who was recruited to front the briefings, was transferred to a new position as a spokeswoman for Alok Sharma, the president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held later this year in Glasgow.
It was Ms Stratton’s appointment last autumn against the wishes of Mr Cain, Mr Cummings and other senior advisers which triggered the power struggle with Ms Symonds. Friends of Ms Symonds say that, contrary to the ‘sexist’ caricature, she is a constant support to Mr Johnson, who has come to rely on her expertise in political communications.
Her critics say that her ‘meddling’ is making Mr Johnson’s already-stressful existence ‘near-intolerable’ at times, and that the PM ‘loses his temper more frequently than he used to’.
Ms Symonds is said to have marched into ministerial meetings to thrust their baby son Wilfred into his arms, and has been described as being ‘more interested in badgers than Brexit’.
One of her critics said: ‘Look at what Boris has to put up with. In the past year he has been through an expensive divorce, an engagement and new fatherhood while leading the Government’s response to the Covid pandemic and nearly dying of the virus himself.
‘He has tried to save the NHS without wrecking the economy, and he has to deal with a hostile Whitehall trying to block him at every turn, with civil servants and bitter former advisers leaking against him at every turn.
‘He doesn’t need bust-ups in the bedroom on top of all that.’