One of Boris Johnson’s most loyal allies, Lee Cain is considering an offer to be Downing Street’s chief of staff, in a move that would consolidate the power of former Vote Leave officials around the prime minister.
Cain’s appointment, which is not confirmed, will cause ructions in Westminster, including among special advisers and ministers who had been hoping for an outsider to be appointed to the key role.
It is understood that Johnson offered Cain, currently director of communications, the position around a week ago, and the adviser has been considering whether he should accept.
Friends indicated that Cain had been considering leaving Downing Street “once the government had got over the hump of Covid,” partly because of the relentless nature of the job, until Johnson had unexpectedly made his offer.
In his current role, Cain has been increasingly centralising government communications in Downing Street and will oversee the new Downing Street spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, who will be the face of Downing Street’s new daily televised press briefings.
Cain is known to have been uneasy with the choice of Stratton for press secretary and he has also previously clashed with Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
Other Whitehall sources said Cain’s appointment as chief of staff, first reported by the Times, was a long way from being certain. A number of government sources expressed surprise at the idea that Cain would be considered.
Cain – currently No 10’s director of communications – is a longtime adviser to Johnson, including during his time as foreign secretary and while on the backbenches after his resignation. The pair are particularly close, with Cain staying loyal to Johnson even when the former mayor of London’s star appeared to be faltering amongst Tories.
A former tabloid journalist, Cain is close to the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings from their time working on Vote Leave, and partly credited with bringing him into Downing Street.
A new chief of staff is set to take over the day-to-day running of the Downing Street operation, currently overseen by Cummings, to allow him to step back and focus on key policy objectives, such as Whitehall reform.
Should Cain accept role, Johnson’s inner circle would be Cain, Cummings, as well as Edward Lister, the chief strategic adviser and the cabinet secretary, Simon Case.
Runners and riders who have been tipped for the role including Isaac Levido, the Australian protege of Tory elections guru Lynton Crosby, who ran the 2019 election campaign, Johnson’s foreign policy adviser John Bew, Paul Stephenson – another Vote Leave veteran – and Gabriel Milland, a former spad and close to Cummings who now runs the agency Public First.
However, a number of those rumoured to be in demand for the role by No 10 run their own lucrative communications operations and would need some convincing to join government. Andrew Feldman, the former Tory party chairman, has reportedly turned down any overtures to persuade him to apply for the role.
Cain caused a stir earlier in the year when political journalists boycotted a Downing Street briefing after he banned selected reporters from attending.
The confrontation took place inside No 10 after Cain tried to exclude reporters from the Mirror, the i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent and others from an official government briefing. Labour accused Johnson of deploying Donald Trump-like tactics to avoid scrutiny.
Among those who refused the briefing on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU were the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, ITV’s Robert Peston and political journalists from Sky News, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
The briefing was due to be given by government officials, who are meant to be politically neutral, but did not happen because of the walkout.