Civil servants are becoming “collateral damage” in a widely rumoured internal power struggle in 10 Downing Street, largely involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds and high-ranking female officials, according to a senior Whitehall source cited by The Times. A slew of vicious anonymous briefings has reportedly reached the government grounds, many of them targeting Symonds.
On Sunday, Johnson’s Press Secretary Allegra Stratton energetically sought to dispel the rumours about a rift and Symonds' part in it, fuming:
“That’s completely mental. Crazy. I love Carrie and would do anything for her. When we all go out for a drink she is just the best fun imaginable. We are all a nest of singing birds”.
But a source cited by The Times went for very different words to describe how things are in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Office:
“It seems more like No 10 psychodrama”, the source said, arguing that it “feels like” civil servants are little more than “a convenient excuse to try and have a dig at her [Symonds]” and serve as merely pawns in an internal power struggle.
Another source suggested, though, that “Miss Symonds is a private individual [and] plays no role in government policy or appointments”.
There have been reports of Symonds, who briefly served as the Conservative Party's head of communications, being at odds with some senior female civil servants, namely Antonia Romeo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, and Helen MacNamara, former property and ethics chief in the Cabinet Office.
Both women were at some point tipped to become the first female Cabinet secretary, with Romeo’s candidacy turned down after Symonds ostensibly went ahead with an angry rant, making a “baseless sexual insult” and claiming the official was not fit for the post, the Daily Mail reported on Saturday.
The report also has it that Symonds took aim at MacNamara, after she ostensibly refused to authorise the expenses for a revamp of Symonds’ Downing Street grace-and-favour apartment. Symonds reportedly made an attempt to persuade Johnson to sack her, but she ultimately chose to quit herself.
In the meantime, Symonds’ allies believe the angry briefings, which extended even to Dilyn, Symonds and Johnson’s Jack Russell cross, were coming from people in the orbit of Johnson’s ex-aide Dominic Cummings. For instance, the complaints reportedly accused Dilyn of chewing antique furniture at Chequers and trying to mount Cummings, among other things.
A government source was cited by The Times as remarking that Cummings had actually been at loggerheads with MacNamara, who he reportedly called “old black eyes”.
“The real battle of wills in Downing Street was between Dom and Helen. She was at the front of the queue to feel the ‘hard rain’”, the source said, referring to a meeting last year where Cummings detailed the civil service reform, warning about a “hard rain” falling on Whitehall.