Steerpike

No. 10 director of communications: runners and riders

No. 10 director of communications: runners and riders
(Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
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Last month Mr S was first to report that Downing Street veteran James Slack was off to the Sun after four years in No. 10. Slack, who survived the transition from May to Johnson but had only served as Lee Cain’s replacement since January, was well-regarded from his time as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson and viewed by the lobby as a ‘safe pair of hands.’

Attention now turns to who will replace Slack in the role. Key attributes needed for the role will be the strength to work gruelling 18-hour days, unflappability under relentless questioning about interiors and the experience to manage Westminster’s unruly press pack. Since the role was created in 2000 all but one of the ten Downing Street directors of comms have been former journalists including Alastair Campbell, Craig Oliver, Andy Coulson and Robbie Gibb. The only exception was Katie Perrior for a brief period under May.

Given Slack's departure caught many in Downing Street by surprise, there wasn't a long list of candidates already in mind. So, with a vacancy to fill, below is Steerpike’s guide to the current runners and riders:

Sarah Sands — the former Radio 4 Today editor, was tipped by last week’s Sunday Times and has been the subject of animated chatter in 10 Downing Street. If Johnson wants a familiar face in No. 10 who better than a former Telegraph colleague from the 1990s who backed him for mayor as Standard editor in 2012? However, given the former Today programme boycott under the Vote Leave team, such an appointment would mark a real break with the past — and be seen as a push towards One Nation conservatism.

Meg Powell-Chandler  currently in charge of the all-important No. 10 grid, Powell-Chandler is on the ascent in government, recently describing herself to Tory MPs as one of Boris Johnson's 'three musketeers'. Well liked on all floors of the building, this former Goveite ticks several boxes but does not come from a journalism background.

Isaac Levido  the Aussie campaign director was at the helm for the 2019 general election and has stayed on good terms with the Prime Minister since. He had a brief stint in Downing Street during the first months of Covid to overhaul the government’s messaging but has since left and is thought to be earning much more on the outside. Would he consider a pay cut? 

Jack Doyle — currently leading the comms in Slack's absence. As No. 10 press secretary, he already knows the ropes and as a former Daily Mail hack understands the lobby.

Allegra Stratton — the No. 10 spokesperson joined Downing Street in October but is yet to give a televised lobby briefing. So, could she be tempted to take charge of the comms strategy instead? Given that No. 10 say the press conferences will begin in May, it's likely a long shot.

Peter Dominiczak — a former Telegraph political editor close to Vote Leave's Paul Stephenson as well as Isaac Levido, with whom he recently founded Fleetwood Partners. Could he keep the seat warm for them come the next election?

Ross Kempsell — recently the subject of a 'cronyism row' after Conservative party sources complained that he was being parachuted into a £90,000 a year job at CCHQ. But now in post, Kempsell's stock is certainly high. He is described in the media as one of Johnson's fiancée Carrie Symonds's 'best friends' and plays tennis with the PM. Given his prior experience working for both online — Guido Fawkes — and broadcast — Times Radio — could his skills be viewed as the right fit?

Francis Elliott  recently departed the Times as political editor. However, he is still involved in Westminster through freelance journalism and as director of advocacy for the charity Engage Britain. The role of director of comms has historically gone to senior journalists, so could Elliott be the heavyweight figure Johnson needs? 

Will Walden — chief counsel at Edelman. Walden is one of Johnson's old time supporters from his days in City Hall. He was previously touted for a comms job when Johnson entered No. 10. However, there was talk of a difference of opinion with the Vote Leave team. Now they are gone, could Walden be welcomed into the fold once more? 

Tom Newton Dunn  began his career making cups of tea for Boris Johnson during his Telegraph days. The Prime Minister apparently never paid him back. However, could TND now return to the fold? He's at Times Radio and has just landed an Evening Standard column — but he could conclude the grass is greener on the other side.

Katy Searle — editor of BBC Westminster. A name currently doing the rounds having done virtually every job in Auntie’s Millbank team but could be seen as ‘too BBC’.

Philip Johnston — assistant editor and leader writer at the Daily Telegraph where he has worked for more than 20 years. A former colleague of Boris Johnson's, the prolific leader writer is an old hand the Prime Minister could trust. 

Piers Morgan  recently departed Good Morning Britain as lead presenter. Was due to have an interview next month with Johnson, who previously maintained a four-year boycott on the show and hid in a fridge to avoid questions during the election. 

Carrie Symonds  former CCHQ head of press. Supporters of Symonds regularly tell the media of her extensive comms skills. Some say she is even doing the job already. After a brief stint ruling the roost at Tory HQ back in 2017, could she go for the top job?