Cummings and Cain departures leave vacuum of power as Brexit talks are reaching climax

Politics is a brutal business, but the last week has surpassed even Westminster’s savage standards.

I understand it was Boris Johnson himself who asked Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain to leave Downing Street. Not at Christmas. Not in the New Year – but right now.

Remember, just two days earlier the prime minister put out a statement saying Cain has been “a true ally and friend”, adding: “I am very glad that he will remain director of communications until the new year.”

After the toxic atmosphere of the last few days – and a bitter briefing war between the two camps – the prime minister was perhaps left with no choice but to ask the two men to leave straight away.

But it’s still a very sudden departure for the two Vote Leave veterans.

Cain was the prime minister’s longest standing aide – sticking with him when Johnson resigned as foreign secretary in Theresa May’s government to return to the backbenchers.

Cummings was once seen as so irreplaceable that the PM spent great political capital keeping him on despite public anger over the Barnard Castle scandal. He is irreplaceable no longer.

It’s easy to dismiss this story as Westminster gossip and tittle tattle – but this is far more profound than that and could have real implications for the UK.

The backstage meltdown leaves a vacuum of power and the chief of staff role feels more important than ever.

Johnson has appointed Sir Eddie Lister as interim chief of staff – a man he trusts having known him for a long time who is seen as a steadying pair of hands.

But he has been working for the prime minister since he took power – and the bitter turf wars have happened anyway.

Plus, he’s expected to leave Number 10 at some point next year – which merely postpones the critical decision as to who will be the PM’s gatekeeper and right-hand man (or woman).

The timing of the meltdown is also significant. Brexit talks are reaching a climax.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said that what happens next week is “crucial”.

He added: “If we don’t have a deal at some point next week, I think we have real problems.”

It is incredible to take a step back and think that at such a critical moment – a week that could have profound consequences for the future of the UK and Europe – the prime minister has lost two of his most important aides and been distracted by one of the most vicious Downing Street battles that Westminster-watchers can remember.

What’s clear is that this marks a pivotal moment for Boris Johnson.

The battle of the last week has seen the old guard burned to the ground – what we don’t know is what will emerge from the ashes.

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