Covid Inquiry UK: who is Lee Cain? Boris Johnson’s communications director gives evidence - what did he say?
Lee Cain - Boris Johnson's director of communications who had a leaving party at Downing Street during the pandemic - is has given to the Covid Inquiry.
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Boris Johnson said the Conservative Party thought "Covid is just nature's way of dealing with old people - and I am not entirely sure I disagree", the UK's official Inquiry has heard.
The revelation was part of former chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance's notes from December 2020, when the country was preparing to go into another lockdown. In August 2020, one of Vallance's notes said that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going. Quite bonkers set of exchanges”. Johnson's former director of communications Lee Cain was giving evidence at the time. He told the Covid Inquiry wasn't "any really serious outline, plan to deal with" the coronavirus pandemic in early March 2020.
He said Johnson “should have done more” about coronavirus in early March 2020. In the Covid Inquiry previously it emerged that Johnson was not contacted about Covid for 10 days in February 2020, which coincided with half term. Cain said: "I don’t think there was any clarity of purpose, any really serious outline, plan to deal with Covid at that particular point ... the Prime Minister should have done more but I think also the team around him and across Whitehall should have done more.” WhatsApp messages showed that Johnson did not appear to think Covid was a "big deal" on 3 March 2020.
Cain also said that in the autumn and winter 2020, Johnson kept making the same mistakes he had at the start of the pandemic: "Too slow to act, a denial of the measures that are going to be necessary to control the virus, moving too late and allow the R to get out of control." Cain, who is in his early 40s, previously worked as a journalist, before going into politics. He became Johnson’s director of communications in 2019, and left in November 2020 in the middle of the Covid pandemic.
At a leaving party for Cain in Downing Street, on 13 November 2020, there is a photo of Johnson holding a glass of what appears to be alcohol up, with several opened bottles of wine and champagne in front of him. One person was fined by the police over this event, although not the Prime Minister. At the time, only two people from different households were allowed to mix indoors.
Cain is giving evidence to the UK’s Covid Inquiry after Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, who sent the infamous “bring your own booze” email about a garden party in May 2020. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief of staff, is also due to speak on 31 October.
Who is Lee Cain?
Lee Cain is a political strategist, communications professional and former journalist. He started his career at the Gloucester Citizen, before moving to the Sun and the Daily Mirror. During the 2010 general election campaign, Cain dressed up as a chicken to goad David Cameron over refusing to appear on TV debates.
He became the head of broadcast media for the successful Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, and then worked for Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Theresa May and then eventually Boris Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary.
After Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019, Cain became his director of communications until 2020, when he quit. The Guardian reported that while Johnson was in hospital after contracting Covid “Lee was running the country, genuinely, for quite some time.” While Cain previously told Politico that one of the issues at the start of the pandemic was that “bad policy” was causing communications problems.
He told Politico: “All the sort of key people [were] saying 'we should close the pubs. But then there was a sort of pushback from those with economic interests, saying, actually, this is a huge industry — all these jobs will be lost. We'd need a whole scheme to support the industry.
“And we ended up with this compromise space of, 'well, let's leave the pubs open, but tell people not to go.' The communicators in the room were very forthright in saying: 'This is obviously not going to hold up. As soon as it hits the media, this will be pulled apart. And we're best just closing the pubs now.' But that's not where we ended up. And I think that's just one of those examples of poor policy."
However he said the slogan “Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS” was highly effective, and the nightly press conferences was the “most important step” his team took during the crisis.
Cain has since set up Charlesbye Strategy, a public affairs and communications consultancy. Its website says it provides “data driven insights that shape public opinion, manage crises, enhance reputations and move people to action”.
What did Cain say to the Covid Inquiry?
Lee Cain has said that the government got the assessment of the virus “wrong” before it arrived in the country in early 2020. He said: "The view was the UK was incredibly well prepared, there had been a decade of pre-preparedness and we were amongst the best in the world to deal with a pandemic and it was being monitored closely by officials in the Department of Health."
He added: "Clearly we got that assessment wrong, but I think you can see why we made the judgments that we did at the time." Cain also said there wasn't "any really serious outline, plan to deal with" the coronavirus pandemic in early March 2020.
A WhatsApp message from Dominic Cummings on 3 March 2020 indicated that Johnson did not think Covid was a “big deal”. The message sent to Cain read: “He (Johnson) doesn’t think it’s a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking economy into a slump.”
Cain told the Inquiry: “So yes, the Prime Minister should have done more but I think also the team around him and across Whitehall should have done more.” He also agreed that there was a “lack of leadership” and “chaos” in government.
He said that anyone who worked with Johnson "will become exhausted with him". Cain told the Inquiry: "He can be quite a challenging character to work with – just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room. I think that’s pretty well documented in terms of his style of operating – in it is rather exhausting from time to time.”
Cain was asked about WhatsApps between Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, Cummings and himself, which appeared to criticise Johnson and other ministers. In one, on 8 September 2020, Cummings said: “As always discussion with these ministers is moronic. They cannot understand priorities.” Cain replied: “This is embarrassing.”
Later, Case said: “This gov’t (sic) doesn’t have the credibility needed to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not to. We look like a terrible, tragic joke. If we were going hard, that decision was needed weeks ago. I cannot cope with this.” Cain replied with a trolley emoji. Another WhatsApp from Case says that Boris Johnson "is really making it impossible" for the government to function and that he "changes strategic direction every day".
Speaking about Johnson, Cain said: "You can forgive some of the errors in the first lockdown because things were moving at incredible speed ... there was inevitably going to be mistakes, but I think we tried to learn as best we could. By the time we moved into this later period, the rump of No10 thought we've learned all these lessons from the first period of lockdown - why are we now trying to ignore them again and repeat the same mistakes? Too slow to act, a denial of the measures that are going to be necessary to control the virus, moving too late and allow the R to get out of control ... which means a longer lockdown in the end, more harmful to health outcomes." He said he shared these issues with Johnson frequently.
What happened with Cain during Partygate?
Cain’s first prominent role during Partygate came shortly after the garden party on 20 May 2020. This was when Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds sent an invite out to around 100 members of staff urging them to make the most of the weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the Downing Street garden. The email infamously suggested that people “bring your own booze”.
In early June, Reynolds sent a message to Cain saying: “Hannah’s leaving drinks next week - can we discuss handling.” Cain replied: “Yes - not sure how we do it but want to do something.”
Reynolds then asked if it was better to do something inside or outside, to which Cain replied: “I’m not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be a shame. I don’t see how we can have some kind of party though.” He added that it was Reynolds’ decision but said “it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks!”
Then on 13 November 2020, Johnson was pictured at Cain’s leaving party raising a toast, with bottles of wine, champagne and an empty gin bottle on the table. One government source told the Mirror that “they were all getting totally plastered”, while Johnson allegedly joked “this is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now”.
At the time, people were only allowed to meet with one person outside their household indoors. Johnson was not issued a fixed-penalty notice for this event by police, however some attendees were. It is not known if Cain was issued with one.
Sue Gray’s report said: “We conclude that there is photographic evidence of Mr Johnson’s presence at an event on November 13 2020 where there was no social distancing; that no mitigations are visible in the photographs; and that the Covid rules and guidance at the time did not allow a socially undistanced event to proceed purely for the purpose of maintaining staff morale, and that this would have been clear to Mr Johnson.”