Downing Street sources have condemned "vicious and cowardly" attacks on Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancee, over a series of toxic briefings and counter-briefings that have rocked No 10.
Senior insiders claimed that Ms Symonds, a former Tory adviser, was becoming too involved with the workings of No 10, with the 32-year-old perceived as seeking to "run the Government by WhatsApp" from the Prime Minister’s official residence.
A senior No 10 source described the claims as "cowardly, vicious, and designed to wound her".
The claims came as sources also alleged that many Downing Street staff now believe Mr Johnson will have quit before the next election, with one senior insider stating: "Most don’t think he’ll be there a year from now.”
The war of words followed the departure of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief aide, and Lee Cain, his communications director, from No 10, following a bitter power struggle with Ms Symonds, who urged the Prime Minister to oust them.
On Saturday evening, one senior insider claimed that Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister and Mr Johnson’s former Tory leadership rival, saw the chaos "as an opportunity to get Boris out", adding: "He thinks he still has another go at becoming PM.”
A Government source dismissed the claim as "complete rubbish".
The dramatic claims came as:
- Mr Johnson prepared to embark on a major effort to repair relations with disaffected backbenchers, including with invitations for MPs to join Downing Street policy task forces, and plans for the Prime Minister to spend more time with parliamentarians in the Commons tea room and No 10
- Allegra Stratton, Mr Johnson’s new chief spokesman, insisted to the Telegraph that she was a "Johnson Tory" and voted for Brexit, after doubt was cast on her Conservative credentials, and it emerged that she had once considered a job offer by David Miliband, the then Labour foreign secretary
- The Prime Minister was facing a growing revolt over Covid-19 restrictions, with more than 30 MPs who supported the current lockdown joining the new Covid Recovery Group, which opposes an extension of the measures
- It emerged that Downing Street has postponed a decision on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the television licence fee over fears the move would lead to elderly people being hounded by bailiffs
Mr Johnson is understood to be furious at briefings against Ms Symonds, who has been the subject of newspaper reports that she is referred to by Cummings loyalists as “Princess nut nuts”, among other nicknames.
A senior No 10 source admitted that Ms Symonds made her views clear to the Prime Minister about "his office" and "his team", which included opposing Mr Cain’s appointment as chief of staff, "because she has views about the kind of man she knows he is".
But the source insisted: "She wouldn’t seek to think that she had more expertise than the official advice he just been given."
However, a senior insider claimed that Ms Symonds appeared "determined" to play a significant role in the workings of Government, "and that’s the heart of the problem."
The source said she clearly had strong views about "wholesale change at No 10", adding that the former Tory communications director is perceived as "wanting to run the government by WhatsApp from the flat".
The senior insider claimed: “There is a set of meetings, decisions are taken, then the PM goes upstairs to the flat, then from 9pm WhatsApp messages start to arrive with him changing his mind."
The source added: "No decision is ever final.” Insiders allege that Ms Symonds has been responsible for a series of government U-turns.
But a Downing Street source said: “These claims are laughable."
Another No 10 source compared Ms Symonds’s involvement in government work to the relationship between Theresa May and her husband Sir Philip, while the pair were in No 10.
"If she would be making big decisions, she would go and have a chat with Philip … It’s a good thing, it’s not surprising, and she’s very good at this stuff."
The source added that attacks on Ms Symonds were "cowardly" because "she is the Prime Minister’s spouse so she must keep herself to herself".
But another source said Ms Symonds used the No 11 flat "as a sort of private office".
Meanwhile, the senior insider predicted that Rishi Sunak would be Prime Minister within six months, as they claimed of Mr Johnson: “Nobody in No 10 thinks he’ll be there in 2024, most don’t think he’ll be there a year from now.”
Tensions between Mr Johnson and his Chancellor are also alleged to be growing over the Prime Minister’s spending demands.
A No 10 source insisted: "No one in their right mind is thinking about elections. The Prime Minister’s focus is on fighting coronavirus and protecting jobs."
This week, after installing Lord Udny-Lister, No 10’s chief strategic adviser, as interim chief of staff, Mr Johnson will seek to bring disaffected MPs "back into the fold", including with invitations to join Downing Street taskforces on the union and the Conservatives’ policy agenda to "level up" the country.
No 10 is also planning to revive the Downing Street policy board, which operated under previous prime ministers, with Neil O’Brien, an influential backbencher, touted as a possible chairman.
Separately Ms Stratton and Munira Mirza, the head of Mr Johnson’s policy unit, will meet MPs to "listen to their concerns and ideas", a No 10 source said.
This week the Prime Minister will seek to return to his domestic policy agenda with a major speech on climate change.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is understood to have been privately reassuring anxious Brexiteers that they will not be "sold out" in negotiations over a trade deal with the EU.