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From the file

Halloween 2020 | Leaks, delays, mistakes and recrimination. This Halloween, there was nothing scarier than the British government’s handling of the second lockdown

Further reading

Friday 20 November 2020

For those who haven’t had enough of this terrifying tale…


This week’s File is all about the chaotic 24-hour period during which Boris Johnson decided upon, and was eventually forced to declare, a second national lockdown. If you’ve not had enough Whitehall intrigue, there’s more to read about that fateful day and its impact:

  • Why not start at the beginning? The Times and the Daily Mail lit the fuse by breaking the lockdown story with exclusives shared online on Friday night. Almost immediately, anger was directed at the government due to a lack of transparency. By the following day, the Guardian’s Molly Blackall was reporting that a furious Downing Street had launched an inquiry into government leaks.
  • Robert Peston’s immediate analysis of Johnson’s handling of the situation for the Spectator was scathing (and do read his follow-up from this week on the wider story, which adds some nice detail from his perspective).
  • The weekend coverage that really compromised the prime minister was the Sunday Telegraph’s revelation that the Covid modelling figures were alarmist, undermining the data that had forced Johnson to declare a second lockdown in the first place.
  • Matt Chorley and Times deputy political editor Steven Swinford revealed what Conservative MPs and ministers were really saying about the new lockdown measures off the record on the Times Redbox podcast.

Exit Cummings and Cain-o

Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain’s time at Number 10 was part of the political collateral left by that Halloween disaster. But… who are they? 

In January 2020 we held a ThinkIn on Cummings and his quick rise from political lurker to one of the most polarising and important figures in Whitehall. (If you can’t manage a full ThinkIn, check out this moment of clairvoyance from Jill Rutter regarding the “mayhem” Cummings could cause.) And for the ultimate guide to his notorious blog – sure to make headlines again now he has some spare time – read Peter Hoskin’s piece from earlier this year. 

And comms wizard Lee Cain? Try the Telegraph article titled ‘Who is Lee Cain, and what does his resignation mean for Downing Street?’ – two questions that many people were likely asking themselves. The piece takes you on a whistle-stop tour of what happened, why he’s controversial and what’s next. The Guardian’s deputy political editor, Jessica Elgort, looks at Cain’s history in the Conservative party and his relationship with Johnson and Cummings, and last week’s episode of the New Statesman podcast discussed what his departure will mean for the government. 

And what actually caused Cummings to solemnly emerge from Number 10 holding a cardboard box with his belongings? Here are a few articles that will help you dig deeper… 

  • Harriet Brewis of the Evening Standard gives a comprehensive timeline of what happened, who’s supposed to replace Cummings and Cain, and how the Conservative party has responded, in a pointedly headlined article: ‘Why Dominic Cummings quit Downing Street – the day after the Evening Standard called for him to go’.
  • The Guardian’s political correspondent Simon Murphy ruminates on all the possible behind-closed-doors scenarios, and for the same paper Archie Bland analyses the Cummings legacy
  • Political editor for the Daily Mail Jason Groves (alongside James Tapsfield and Martin Robinson) examines the future of a Conservative party without Cummings and Cain at the helm, looking at what went wrong and where the party seems to be headed. 
  • And if you’d like to rewind… PoliticsHome, Alain Tolhurst helpfully collated all the “takes” on the Cain drama while it was just a whisper – and before it actually kicked off in earnest. 

Inside Downing Street

The heavily polished black door that sits at Number 10 Downing Street is perhaps the most famous in the country, and itself a symbol of British politics. But how many of us actually know what’s happening on the other side? Here are some books that shed light on the elusive inner workings of Whitehall…

  • The BBC’s Nick Robinson delves into the complex, and at times fraught, relationship between broadcasters and the government, taking the reader on a journey down right into Number 10 in Live from Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media.  
  • You can read or listen to The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac. The Black Door explores the relationship between British prime ministers and national intelligence agencies, telling a compelling story that looks at those who walk the dimly lit corridors in Downing Street – and the secret decisions they make. 
  • Jack Brown’s No 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street zooms out, taking a holistic look at the residents of Number Ten since World War Two. Brown was the first ever researcher in residence on Downing Street, giving him unprecedented access to its papers and people. 
  • Last year the BBC released The Cameron Years: a two-part documentary that, unsurprisingly, looks at David Cameron’s time as leader of the Conservative party, including interviews with Cameron himself. The documentary looks at the EU referendum and the decisions that were made in Downing Street that led to his resignation. The full documentary is available on Youtube. 
  • If listening to David Cameron speak for two hours seems a bit much, you might want to read his memoir instead. In For The Record, David Cameron is a significant political biography that honestly and intimately reflects on the internal mechanisms of Downing Street during his six years in power. 

A special something

So Lee Cain is no longer a Spad. But… who are Spads, and what do they actually do

Spads, or special advisers, are temporary civil servants that work directly for specific ministers. They effectively exist to make ministers’ lives easier, and are often thought of as spin doctors (although in most cases that’s a little unfair). To get you started…

And here are some suggestions if you prefer your information straight from the horse’s mouth…

  • Earlier this week, Laura Round, a former spad, wrote an op-ed for Tortoise about how the job has changed in recent years – and what it might look like after Cummings. 
  • In The Alastair Campbell Diaries (Volumes 1-3), Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief strategist and potentially the most famous spad of all time, discusses the challenges and the betrayals, the wins and the losses, and the barely concealed hostility that existed in the Labour party between 1994 and 2001.
  • Peter Cardwell was a spad to four ministers, acting as everything from political fixer to spin doctor (and, occasionally, stylist). He has given a candid insider account in his book The Secret Life of Special Advisers
  • Giles Wilkes is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, but before that he was special advisor to both Theresa May and Vince Cable. His Medium blog hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s a good insight into life after spad-dom, as well as life during. 
  • Back in 2010, Mark Davies, Jack Straw’s former spad, wrote a piece for the Guardian about the ups and downs of life as an adviser – and what happens when you’re voted out.

But, really, the best place to start is probably by watching The Thick of It, the British TV comedy series that skewered spads so effectively that it’s become synonymous with the job.