Boris Johnson’s top Downing Street spin doctor has quit after a bitter power struggle behind the scenes.
In a major blow for the prime minister, his director of communications Lee Cain has resigned and will leave the role at the end of the year.
Just hours earlier there were reports of bitter arguments within the Conservative camp over a plan to make Mr Cain Number 10’s chief of staff.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said squabbling within the party was “pathetic”.
He tweeted: “We are in the most serious public health crisis for over 100 years. We passed the grim milestone of 50,000 deaths today yet Downing Street spin doctors are preoccupied with squabbling likes rats in a sack.”
In a statement confirming his resignation, Lee Cain confirmed he had been asked to take up the prestigious position before quitting.
He said: “After careful consideration I have this evening resigned as No10 director of communications and will leave the post at the end of the year.
“It has been a privilege to work as an adviser for Mr Johnson for the last three years – being part of a team that helped him win the Tory leadership contest, secure the largest Conservative majority for three decades – and it was an honour to be asked to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff.
“I would like to thank all the team at No10 – including the many unsung and incredibly talented civil servants – for their hard work and support during the last 18 months.
“And most of all I would like to thank the prime minister for his loyalty and leadership.
“I have no doubt that under his premiership the country will deliver on the promises made in the 2019 election campaign and build back better from the coronavirus pandemic.”
Responding to the shock news of his loyal ally’s resignation, Mr Johnson said: “I want to thank Lee for his extraordinary service to the government over the last four years.
“He has been a true ally and friend and I am very glad that he will remain director of communications until the new year and to help restructure the operation. He will be much missed.”
It is believed that highly respected James Slack, a former Daily Mail political editor who is now the PM’s official spokesman, will step into Mr Cain’s role as director of communications.
Mr Cain helped run Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign last year and was rewarded with the job of top Downing Street spin doctor with a salary of nearly £150,000.
There was speculation Mr Johnson would appoint Mr Cain to the pivotal chief of staff after criticism from some Conservative MPs over how the government has handled a number of policy and COVID-related situations.
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Mr Cain was a close ally of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, having worked with him on the Brexit campaign.
The appointment was seen as consolidating the former Vote Leave team’s grip at the top of Downing Street.
However it provoked an immediate backlash with Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds reportedly opposed to the move.
Others within the party blame Mr Cain for a series of PR disasters, such as the row with England footballer Marcus Rashford over his free school meals campaign and the chaotic leak of plans for a second national lockdown in England 12 days ago, which forced Mr Johnson to hold a news conference that delayed Strictly Come Dancing on TV.
Mr Cain is also thought to have been unhappy with Mr Johnson’s choice of Allegra Stratton, a former newspaper and TV journalist who was Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spin doctor, as the new Downing Street spokesperson for the White House-style news conferences which are due to begin in the New Year.
Worryingly for the prime minister, Mr Cain’s shock resignation has led to speculation in and around No. 10 that Mr Cummings – a close ally and fellow Vote Leave veteran – may also want to quit in protest.
He is reportedly not interested in taking the role himself.
Speaking during a visit to a Tesco distribution centre in south east London earlier on Wednesday, Mr Johnson refused to be drawn on the reports of Mr Cain’s promotion.
“I have got lots of fantastic members of staff. As soon as there is any further announcements to be made about that you will be hearing in due course,” he said.
Former journalist Mr Cain had an ill-fated and short-lived career as a tabloid newspaper reporter, during which time his main claim to fame was dressing up as the Daily Mirror “chicken” and pursuing David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign.