My intention when I started to research this book was to tell the story of how Boris Johnson was ousted from power.
Instead, what I uncovered was a small group of men, most of them unelected and some totally unknown outside of a tight Westminster bubble, who have been operating at the heart of the Conservative Party over the past 25 years and controlling its destiny.
They are, I can reveal, former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, Tory Party apparatchik Dougie Smith and secretary of state Michael Gove, plus the most mysterious individual of all, a character we shall have to call ‘Dr No’, who wields enormous influence, whom everyone was scared of, though his name is never mentioned.
All too often it is their hand on the levers which raise ministers up and drop them back down — even if they are sitting prime ministers with an 80-seat majority, as Boris was. They also brought down Iain Duncan Smith as party leader, created havoc for Theresa May and undermined Liz Truss.
As one top-level contact told me: ‘For them, it’s not about democracy, or the wishes of the people; it’s about the decisions of a powerful, privileged and controlling few. They are the power and the throne, with an entire network singing to their tune.’
What I uncovered was a small group of men, most of them unelected and some totally unknown outside of a tight Westminster bubble, who have been operating at the heart of the Conservative Party over the past 25 years and controlling its destiny
During the course of my research I quickly discovered that when it came to behind-the-scenes manipulation and manoeuvring, all roads lead back to Michael Gove (pictured)
What is even more shocking about this story of corruption and unaccountable power is that it has never been told before. Each of the more than 50 insiders I interviewed — from prime ministers and party leaders, through Cabinet ministers, to civil servants and backbenchers, from party grandees to special advisers — had the same tale to tell and yet it is one you are almost certainly entirely unaware of.
The idea for this book was first suggested to me by a No 10 aide who had been in place since the beginning of time. She’d sent me a text the day Boris was ousted: ‘You’re a writer, you should write the truth about this.’
After thinking about it, I called a contact who worked at the heart of No 10 and asked: ‘If I were to write about all that has happened since the day Boris was elected, will you meet with me and tell me everything you saw?’
The phone scratched and shuffled and went quiet. ‘Sorry, I just moved out of the office. You don’t mean policy stuff, you mean the games, the plot to remove him since long before he was elected, the dark arts, everything?’
I was confused. ‘What do you mean, long before he was elected? What, with an 80-seat majority? How does that work? That’s ridiculous.’
‘Oh yes, they work as a group right at the centre and over the years have tarnished and ended many ministerial careers. Look, if I am going to speak to you, it would have to be totally anonymous, I’d lose my job otherwise.’
Our jovial Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, strode past me, raising his hand. ‘Secretary of State,’ he began, as he always did when he saw me, and my heart lurched in response. If I did write this book, how many more times would anyone address me in a way that made me almost pinch myself each and every time it happened?
I decided it was worth speaking to the aide who had first contacted me just to gauge why she believed there would be enough that was interesting to form the basis of a book anyone would want to read. Can you meet tonight? I asked. The reply came within seconds.
Tonight at 7.30? I messaged back as the car glided into the stream of traffic. The Two Chairmen pub? I suggested, a favourite Westminster watering hole.
As I turned the corner, my head bent, hands thrust into my pockets, I could see the pavement was heaving with researchers and lobby journalists. My name was whispered behind me as I moved through the crowd. ‘Secretary of State,’ said one young man as he stood back to let me pass.
I had made a stupid mistake; this was way too public. If I was going to do this, it would be lesson No 1 learnt: don’t meet people in the environs of Westminster. The inside of the pub was empty apart from people at the bar ordering drinks; everyone else was outside enjoying the muggy September evening air.
I glanced around and I couldn’t see my secret assignation anywhere. Maybe I was too late and she had had to leave. I cursed the unpredictable hours of my job as I took out my phone just as a notification dropped on to the home screen. Keep on walking to the back, bottom right. My footsteps echoed across the aged wooden floorboards until I reached the rear of the pub. She was tucked into the corner, and I realised we were in a private place where no one would hear us. ‘Phew,’ I said as I slipped on to a stool and looked behind me. No one was watching, my arrival already old news.
We sipped warm champagne as she told me: ‘Look, Boris has made mistakes, but what has just happened to him, it was unjust and wrong, it was a travesty and it must be the tipping point, the catalyst, the moment at which they have gone too far; they have to be stopped.’
The idea for this book was first suggested to me by a No 10 aide who had been in place since the beginning of time
The key players, she said, were ‘Gove, Cummings, Cain, Dougie Smith (pictured) and someone for whom we shall have to substitute the codename ‘Dr No’ ‘, whose name was never mentioned and who everyone was scared of
She looked up at me, her eyes earnest. ‘Boris had no idea what was really going on and he still doesn’t know all of it, but he had asked people questions and the answers he was given were, no boss, nothing to see here. There are people who have a great deal to hide.
‘And I can also tell you this: they won’t be happy with Liz [Truss who had just been elected leader of the Conservative Party and become prime minister]. They will panic her, they will get her out, she will make wrong moves, they will get Rishi [Sunak] in, and they won’t be happy with him either. They are already looking beyond Rishi . . .’
I hesitated. I hadn’t decided whether or not to write the book, I told her. ‘But you have to,’ she said. ‘People have a right to know.’
During the course of my research I quickly discovered that when it came to behind-the-scenes manipulation and manoeuvring, all roads lead back to Michael Gove. As one source told me: ‘He binds all the dark arts people together.’
What happened to Boris was a travesty
I observed him at Cabinet meetings as he took notes, completely against protocol. I had often wondered why the Prime Minister allowed it. He always had two notepads on the table in front of him, flicking the pages back and forth, mimicking the ﬂight of his unsettled mind. A meddler who just couldn’t help himself, he was a man I could only ever visualise as Brutus, for stabbing Boris in the back in 2016, when he declared his sole candidature for the party leadership on the very morning he and Boris were due to announce their joint ticket.
His betrayal resulted in Theresa May becoming Prime Minister by default and almost delivered Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister in the election of 2017. I thought him shifty because that’s what he was.
But Boris welcomed him back to the top table when he eventually became PM, even though he had been warned about Gove by many people, notably Lynton Crosby, his trusted election guru.
When I asked Boris what his reaction was when he was warned that people around him were working in an organised way against him, he said: ‘I thought, Well, we’ll see about that. We had an 80-seat majority, a democratic mandate from the people. I rather naively thought that in this country, power ﬂowed from the people in electing a prime minister.’
My intention when I started to research this book was to tell the story of how Boris Johnson was ousted from power
We all thought that. Now we know how wrong we were.
Gove was in cahoots with Boris’s adviser, Dominic Cummings. A disruptor by nature, he was known as the Dark Lord for all his scheming, a nickname he revelled in.
In a revealing interview with Laura Kuenssberg in 2021 — which went astonishingly unchallenged and unremarked at the time — he admitted that he and a few others were discussing getting rid of Boris within days of him winning the biggest Conservative majority in decades. The italics are mine. And it is worth nothing that Vote Leave was led not just by Dominic Cummings but also by Michael Gove.
LK: You’ve just said that within months of the Prime Minister winning the biggest Conservative majority in decades, you and a few others from the Vote Leave campaign were discussing the possibility of getting rid of him [Boris Johnson].
DC: Days, not months.
LK: [Incredulous] Within days not months, you were discussing getting rid of him.
DC: Yes . . . We only got him in there because we had to sort a certain problem, not because we thought he should be Prime Minister . . .
IN THE plush surroundings of 5 Hertford Street, a discreet private members’ club in Mayfair, I met a high-level contact I have codenamed Moneypenny. She had suggested the venue.
I was whisked up the grand staircase and ushered into a room which was no more than 12 ft x 12 ft but was furnished in the most exquisite old-English country-house style.
A sofa you sink into rested against the back wall below the window and two comfortable armchairs opposite were separated by a long, wooden coffee table which was covered with a pure white linen cloth upon which sat a tea tray. A smokeless fire roared behind a burgundy club fender and the flames filled the room with a warm and flickering glow.
I began by asking her what she knew about Dominic Cummings.
‘Ah, Cummings, Gove’s protege. Of course, he would hate to hear me say that because, actually, the reality is, Gove is his.
‘I can remember well the delegation of people working very hard together who pushed the Prime Minister to give Dom an official position in No 10; they were absolutely unrelenting. WhatsApp messages, visits, phone calls. They never stopped.
‘Lord [David] Frost, the former Brexit Minister. Munira Mirza, who had worked for Boris for years when he was London mayor and followed him to No 10 to become his head of policy. Dougie Smith, who is of course married to Munira. And when it comes to Cummings, always Michael Gove, also Lee Cain [head of communications for Boris 2019-20], a total puppet of Cummings.
‘Dougie Smith is an interesting case. He’s worked for Central Office for as long as anyone can remember, but he appears on no staff list. He always had a pass to No 10. His roots go back to an organisation known as the Federation of Conservative Students, which was shut down for being too Right-wing, but they had reconvened into a group who gave themselves the informal moniker, ‘the movement’.
‘Not that they call themselves that today. You are going to learn a great deal about these people and how they operate.’
The food arrived and the hot, creamy celeriac soup smelled delicious. In the cosy room, the outer doors locked, we were totally private. I wondered if I could bring other people here to interview. No one would open up to me like this anywhere they could be seen.
‘When did you first know something was afoot, that they were trying to remove Boris?’ I asked her.
‘Well, for some time, but it was plainly obvious that Friday morning, the day after the election victory in December 2019, they [the movement] were furious.
‘Boris had won too big. They felt like the confidence that gave him would make it more difficult to control him and, in a way, they were right. Boris constantly pushed back against all of them; and that made them both determined and furious.’
The key players, she said, were ‘Gove, Cummings, Cain, Dougie Smith and someone for whom we shall have to substitute the codename ‘Dr No’ ‘, whose name was never mentioned and who everyone was scared of.
As I dug deeper into affairs at the heart of government, I was astonished how little information was available on such important men of inﬂuence in No 10 as Smith and Dr No
‘Dr No?’ I must have looked incredulous. She laughed. ‘I don’t know why I’m laughing, it’s not funny. If you’re going to call me Moneypenny, then this man is my nemesis. He’s a man who has been involved for 40 years now and he is the key player in Central Office and No 10 who very few people have ever met.’
A contact I codenamed Skyfall explained the origins of the group: ‘Years ago, they all got together when they were the Federation of Conservative Students.
‘Dougie Smith kind of led them and then stood for chairman, until someone pointed out that he wasn’t actually a student and was, in fact, much older than the rest of them. The federation was way over on the very Right of the party; it was actually funded by the party back then but they caused a lot of trouble. I mean, it was putting forward the total liberalisation of drug laws, incest and paedophilia, hanging Nelson Mandela.
‘Not everyone agreed with the extreme positions, but the core members, those who did, they were more like anarchists.
‘They were kind of, ‘Oh, we’re libertarians, true Conservatives, it’s all about freedom,’ when, actually, they were just weird and hedonistic. I suppose they were sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but if you replace the rock ‘n’ roll with politics for that lot, that was kind of it.
‘They were shut down by Norman Tebbit for a while, caused thousands of pounds of damage to accommodation during conference. Tebbit sensed the danger way back; he was a wise man.’
Unrelenting in getting a job for Cummings
As I dug deeper into affairs at the heart of government, I was astonished how little information was available on such important men of inﬂuence in No 10 as Smith and Dr No.
Smith, who was a speech-writer under David Cameron, has almost no internet footprint, except that for five years he ran Fever, a company providing exclusive sex parties. He is reported as having said of his own sex parties, ‘It’s more action than any man can dream of’ and described his party-goers as ‘the SAS of sex’. He is now a key adviser to Rishi Sunak and has been his friend for many years. I was told he has been in charge of Tory candidate selection since Theresa May, ‘which is why most MPs today are totally s***’.
Smith was described to me as ‘a bully and a genius, an intimidating man who has total meltdowns. When he is unhappy he will call people at all hours of the night and scream at them’. His arrogance is such that in 2021, just over a year after Boris had won an historic election, Smith rang Boris and told him to stand down.
‘What did Dougie Smith say to you when he called you?’ I asked Boris. He hesitated. I could see how reluctant he was to revisit this stuff, but I had to know. ‘What did Dougie say?’ I prompted him a second time.
‘Well, it was unexpected and fairly unpleasant,’ he said. ‘He was pretty robust and to the point. He said, ‘I think you should go, you should stand down now and we may let you come back again one day. You are poison, like Nixon. If you don’t go, I’m going to take you down. I’ll finish you off.’ ‘
Can you believe it?
As for Dr No, if ever there was someone you’d think was the perfect target for investigative journalism he surely was it, given that he is paid by Central Office, has a pass to No 10 and, some say, Rishi Sunak doesn’t move without ﬁrst seeking his advice. And yet people can spend years working in No 10 and never hear his name mentioned.
Gove was in cahoots with Boris’s adviser, Dominic Cummings (pictured). A disruptor by nature, he was known as the Dark Lord for all his scheming, a nickname he revelled in
‘Dr No’ was once on remand in prison for alleged arson. When a girlfriend ended their relationship, it is rumoured that he had her little brother’s pet rabbit chopped into four and nailed to the front door of the family home to greet him when he got home from school, in true Mafia style.
I also heard stories of how he liked to hint that he had once been a spook.
What really made my ears prick up was the story I was hearing from senior figures within the party, people with responsibility for the party’s finances.
‘Each time a new party chairman or treasurer came along and looked at the books in Central Office, they asked, ‘Who are these people we are paying an extraordinary amount of money to as employees of CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters]? Who is this one, Dr No? He never comes in and why has no one ever met him? I’ve never met him. Has anyone ever met him?’
‘No one knew who Dr No was or even what he did, other than Michael Gove and a select few, and of course prime ministers.’
I interviewed a number of high-profile figures and they all told me the same story. Dr No was never in the CCHQ building, rarely seen in No 10 by the civil servants.
‘He was this invisible figure and every party chairman would conclude when poring over the accounts, ‘Well, sack him then. We don’t pay people who don’t earn their money. We are a political party, not a charity.’
‘Within no time at all of that decision being taken, the phone would ring and it would be Michael Gove, who would very robustly make it clear that Dr No was going nowhere and would remain on the CCHQ payroll. He would spin stories about how he was the employee who dealt in the dark arts, and would cast this cloak of secrecy, like, you can’t go there or know who he is, you just have to accept it and keep paying the money.
‘It was very clear, there was no way Gove was letting him go. It was utterly bizarre. Dr No is the strategist who the Prime Minister will speak to often, daily sometimes. He was said to have seen the inside of a cell in Brixton jail on remand for alleged harassment.
‘For a man with a secretive past, he appears to have trouble keeping clear of the authorities. Dr No loves violence too. If ever there is a demonstration in Downing Street and he’s in there, he will slip out of the back door into the street and he seeks out the violent clashes. He doesn’t take part, he just cruises around and watches.
‘It really is quite remarkable, over 40 years, only a handful of people who have been in No 10 could point him out to you. If a staffer ever asked, ‘Who is that man?’ as he shuffled past, there would be no answer forthcoming.
‘Someone who has had the misfortune to run up against him said to me, ‘He’s just a very bad man with an evil mind, and in politics every Prime Minister needs a man just like him by his side.’ He’s spent time with Rishi and his wife Akshata.
‘He has facilitated Rishi’s journey all the way into No 10. Without Dr No, Rishi Sunak would never have been Prime Minister; Rishi’s a Goldman Sachs banker, he didn’t have a clue but because he was a banker, he wasn’t averse to or any stranger to Machiavellian tactics at work.’
A veteran in the party told me: ‘Dr No was a bad-tempered, frightening man who has always operated in the shadows. He gives the impression that he has something over everyone, secrets over people in powerful positions, related to his presence at the sex parties maybe?’
The veteran confirmed a story I had heard from others about a wealthy party donor who had a dispute about money with Dr No. ‘Dr No ﬂeeced him. Took his gold American Express card for a ride. Travelled in helicopters, pretended to be setting up a think tank, trashed his house and spent the money. He was nothing more than a petty crook and now he’s in No 10 and advising the PM.’
A person who has known Dr No for years told me: ‘He was never bothered by celebrity. It was inﬂuence and power he wanted. He mixes with a lot of very wealthy people. He is attracted to them, turns on the whole long charm and grooming offensive, and slowly, like an octopus, wraps his tentacles around them, one by one. He makes himself a ﬁxer to the rich.
‘A deep and complex man, he’s quite old now. He never wanted to be an MP, but has more power than any MP ever has had. Here’s the thing, if you walked into any building with him, he wouldn’t sit down until he had checked out where all the exit points were.’
Dirty dossiers are one of his favourite modes of operation, according to my source codenamed Skyfall.
‘He used to do it to ministers he didn’t want to see rising up the ranks, or to those he wanted sacked or forced to resign so he could get someone else in, so they would be grateful to him and owe him. He used to write them in the style of a Tory Central Office research document.’
One was composed about Liz Truss, ‘mostly sexual, disgusting and untrue, seriously made-up nasty stuff’.
‘Apparently, one of the claims was that she made civil servants deliver papers to her while she was lying in her bath at home. It was lies. If you could find a civil servant to conﬁrm that, it would be front-page news, not a dirty dossier. I was told that Dr No showed the dossier to Rishi Sunak and, to his credit, Rishi told him not to use it because it would reﬂect badly on him. But Dr No ignored him, because Rishi wasn’t in charge, they were.
‘Then, when the dossier was considered so appalling that the Press didn’t use it, it was texted to a journalist that ‘we’re keeping this ammunition for use at a later date’. He meant after she had won the leadership election.
‘She was in the job only a week, and then another dirty dossier was released about her husband, Hugh, a lovely man. This is what Dr No does. He undermines and destabilises people. Even if the dossiers aren’t used, he likes the victim to know they are out there and that someone might just print something and upset their children.
‘And even when they know it’s not true, that worry keeps them awake at night and sinks down deep into their psyche. Dr No ﬁred a rocket deep into the heart of her family and it ﬂoored her because, as ﬁctitious as it was, she knew it was out there.’
Families were considered fair game. Another source told me: ‘Negative reports in the media about Boris and his wife Carrie came from Cummings. He hated her. They saw her as a barrier to their plan for total control. They wanted to place so much strain on the relationship that Carrie would walk.’
I asked my source: ‘So are you saying that the things in the Press about Carrie weren’t true?’ He laughed. ‘Well, Dilyn deﬁnitely did hump legs and p***ed on a handbag, but no one minded, unless you wanted to go out of your way to harm Boris and Carrie and place it in the Sunday papers, which of course, they did. They tried big time to cause trouble in the home, to make them feel vulnerable and scared and dependent upon them. It’s mind games and they are good at it.’
It was all so astonishing.
‘To your knowledge, how much of this did Boris know?’ I asked Moneypenny.
She sighed. ‘None of it. They were so subtle, so organised, so strategic, there is no doubt that, from day one, when Boris wanted to get stuff done, these people pushed back against him.
‘Gently at first, one by one they pushed and obfuscated until the move to oust him gathered momentum, and then they pushed harder. It became obvious that they had wanted him out from before the moment Boris walked through the door after the election.
‘The next question is, why was IDS removed from office in November 2003? Remember that? It was decided by the great and good that for the sake of the stability and security of the party, Michael Howard would be put in place as a caretaker leader. No election, no votes. Caretaking what and for whom? Who decided that?
‘The next phase in the history of the party tells you what that was about: caretaking for Cameron and [George] Osborne, to be ready in time for 2005 when Cameron was elected as leader. It was all pre-determined. Nothing happens by accident for these people. That’s why Boris being elected with such a huge majority upset everyone so much.
‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘in 2019 Gove and Cummings, all of them, they supported Boris.’
‘Yes, because they needed an election winner. Gove stabbing Boris in the back in 2016 got us Theresa May and had almost delivered Corbyn as Prime Minister. They thought they were clever but in fact they behave like anarchists and they only ever created disharmony and trouble.
‘In 2019 they needed Boris to save them from all the harm they had been responsible for. The person they had actually lined up to be PM, Rishi, just wasn’t ready, but once Boris was in and had given them a big majority, it was time to get him out. He had served his purpose.’
And so they conspired to oust him from Downing Street.
- The Plot by Nadine Dorries (HarperCollins Publishers, £25) to be published on November 9. © Nadine Dories 2023. To order a copy for £21.25 (offer valid until November 19, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.