No 10 tried to solve ‘Allegra Stratton problem’ by giving her a Royal role
Boris Johnson was blunt when he picked up the phone to Alok Sharma earlier this month. ‘At the end of this conversation, you are going to say, “That’s a great idea, Boris,” ’ the Prime Minister told him.
His suggestion was to move Allegra Stratton from her job as No 10 press secretary to become the spokeswoman for Mr Sharma, the president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Glasgow later this year.
Mr Sharma dutifully agreed with the brilliance of the plan.
Allegra Stratton, pictured, was hired to deliver press briefings from Number 10’s new flash media suite
The TV press briefings were scrapped following an internal row among senior officials with Boris Johnson’s inner circle
Alok Sharma, business secretary, did not object to the instruction delivered by his boss, Boris Johnson
It was the denouement of a bitter Downing Street saga over the doomed televised press briefings, which had already claimed the jobs of Dominic Cummings and director of communications Lee Cain, and placed Carrie Symonds’s influence in No 10 under the spotlight.
Ms Stratton, a former television journalist and ‘FoC’ (Friend of Carrie), had won the right to front the briefings despite the reservations of Mr Cain and James Slack, who succeeded Mr Cain in the top communications job in January. When Mr Slack left No 10 last month, it opened up a vacancy – but one that the Prime Minister was reluctant to fill with Ms Stratton.
The Mail on Sunday understands that No 10 first tried to solve the ‘Allegra problem’ by suggesting that it could be ‘arranged’ for her to take a job as spokeswoman for Prince Charles – a suggestion Ms Stratton rejected.
However, her friends last night said she had had no idea that the Royal job was an option.
Her appointment to the COP26 climate conference ended an intensely divisive process which started last July at Chequers, where Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds were hosting a dinner for Ms Stratton, her well-connected husband James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata.
At the time, Ms Stratton had just started working for Mr Sunak at the Treasury as director of strategic communications. But Mr Johnson used the meal to poach Ms Stratton to become the face of White House-style press conferences, to the anger of the Chancellor, who is understood to remain furious at the ‘betrayal’.
Her appointment to the COP26 climate conference ended an intensely divisive process which started last July at Chequers, where Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds were hosting a dinner for Ms Stratton, her well-connected husband James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata
According to No 10 officials, Mr Johnson tried to nobble the official recruitment process to please Ms Symonds, who wanted Ms Stratton to take the job to offset the ‘laddish’ atmosphere which she said prevailed at the time in No 10.
A source said: ‘The Prime Minister said that if we found a better candidate than Allegra then he would appoint them.
‘We did find a better candidate, and he just said, “I didn’t think you would find someone better. Sorry, it has to be Allegra otherwise Carrie will go f******* crackers.” ’
A panel of experts had assessed Ms Stratton’s performances in mock press conferences, but she was marked below two rivals – BBC journalist Ellie Price and former ITV reporter Angus Walker.
The Prime Minister was told that Ms Stratton, who is warm and friendly in person, had seemed more ‘panicked’ and ‘combative’ in the role, had wobbled on questions about immigration and sometimes had an ‘irksome’ manner which raised the temperature of the briefings.
One analysis also concluded that ‘she doesn’t seem like a Conservative’.
Nonetheless, Ms Stratton was installed in the job in October, but the start of the briefings was delayed endlessly (and were finally ditched altogether this month), forcing Ms Stratton to try to carve out a niche for herself in No 10 to justify her £125,000-a year salary.
Tensions rose, as Mr Cummings and Mr Cain clashed with Ms Stratton, Ms Symonds and Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street policy unit – all of whom joined forces to persuade Boris to abandon plans to make Mr Cain the Downing Street chief of staff.
After both Mr Cummings and Mr Cain were finally forced out in November, Ms Stratton said: ‘The country does not want to be run by people in No 10 who treat people discourteously and unpleasantly.’
But sources claim the friendship between Ms Stratton and Ms Symonds started to sour as soon as Mr Cummings and Mr Cain left. ‘Allegra had served Carrie’s purpose by then,’ said one acerbic observer.
There is also understood to have been disquiet within No 10 when Ms Stratton told The Observer newspaper that she had been ‘in tears all morning’ as a result of what she believed were critical briefings by the exiled advisers.
Some of her colleagues also blanched when she declared that her young family would take priority over ‘office presenteeism’, with one source pointing out that ‘she is surrounded by people working twice the hours on half the money’.
One source said that ‘Where’s Allegra?’ became a familiar refrain from the Prime Minister during early-morning meetings at No 10.
Publicly, Ms Stratton insisted all was well with her and Ms Symonds. She told The Mail on Sunday earlier this year: ‘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.’ Ironically, the remark is said to have annoyed Ms Symonds.
Friends of Ms Stratton said she arrived at work every day between 8am and 8.30am, that she had insisted on coming in despite being advised to stay at home for Covid reasons, and that the PM had never expressed anger at her or mentioned her attendance at meetings.
They also said focus groups had found her performance conveying the No 10 message to be ‘authoritative’, and that her aim had been to be ‘reasonable, fair and accessible’.
But now government officials are speculating about whether she will remain with COP26 or resume her career in television journalism.
The mutterings have grown louder because of doubts over whether the summit will go ahead as planned – as it has already been postponed once because of Covid.
Mr Sharma left his post as Business Secretary last February to lead the conference, but his ability has also been questioned, with one source describing him as ‘the batsman who doesn’t score any runs’.
After the experience of the past year, it seems increasingly plausible that Ms Stratton will decide she has had enough of political life amid Westminster’s nest of vipers.