Katy Balls

Turbulence in Downing Street as another Vote Leave aide departs

Turbulence in Downing Street as another Vote Leave aide departs
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Boris Johnson has lost a longstanding aide from 10 Downing Street this evening with Oliver Lewis quitting as head of the Union unit. Lewis had only been appointed to the job two weeks ago having previously worked on the Brexit negotiations. His resignation comes after a week of bubbling tensions in No. 10 over recent personnel changes. 

Last Friday, Johnson announced that Simone Finn would be his deputy chief of staff and former Michael Gove aide Henry Newman his new senior adviser. These appointments were the first significant moves since Dan Rosenfield was named chief of staff in the wake of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain's departure. The Vote Leave duo left their roles late last year following a rather public turf war that involved the Prime Minister's partner Carrie Symonds.

Rosenfield's appointment in November as chief of staff was widely read as a sign that Johnson was moving past previous factional infighting by appointing a neutral figure. However, the appointment of Finn and Newman last week reopened old wounds. The pair are allies of Gove and close friends of Carrie Symonds. 

The promotion of Newman led some in No. 10 to wonder if a policy shift was underway. When the UK's chief Brexit negotiator David Frost was this week appointed as a minister of state and member of the Cabinet, reports soon emerged linking it to the new No. 10 hires. Frost is understood to have sought clarification from the Prime Minister over his role – with Frost pushing for a more confrontational approach on the Northern Ireland Protocol than the one favoured by Gove and Newman. That assurance appears to have come in the form of Frost's promotion.

When it comes to Lewis's departure, similar concerns are said to have been at play. One figure involved says that Lewis – known in the office as Sonic – was concerned Newman's promotion meant that he would have less freedom when it came to his Union role, with Newman working with Gove previously on the Union strategy. Lewis is thought to have favoured a more combative approach than Team Gove who lean more towards love-bombing Scotland. One government insider suggests Newman could take on a leading role on Union strategy.

Lewis is also a Vote Leave alumni and ally of Cummings. It follows that there are some in Downing Street who questioned whether Lewis should still be there after Cummings's departure. Lewis was allegedly accused of leaking negative stories – something he denies. Another Cummings ally, Katie Lam, is also departing. However, to read this simply as a completion of the Vote Leave exodus seems wide of the mark. 

The promotion of Finn and Newman has already caused discontent with other Johnson factions. The Prime Minister's political secretary Ben Gascoigne is reported by the Daily Mail to have considered quitting earlier this week in light of the moves. 

While Coffee House understands he is staying put, there is unhappiness among longstanding Johnson supporters that Gove allies have been promoted to senior positions. They still remember the 2016 Tory leadership race where Gove torpedoed Johnson's campaign by launching his own leadership bid. 

Meanwhile, as Rosenfield settles into the role of Chief of Staff, he is ruffling feathers. Aides complain that he is trying too hard to be the opposite of Dominic Cummings and overdoing niceties in meetings. 'No one in No. 10 agrees on much at the moment, but there's a lot of agreement on Dan's shortcomings'. 

Rosenfield was appointed to restore discipline to Downing Street. With the government's roadmap out of lockdown to be unveiled on Monday, recent events suggest there is still some way to go. 

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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