While the UK’s coronavirus death toll topped 50,000 on Wednesday, Westminster was embroiled in a fight over Boris Johnson’s chief of staff role.
Lee Cain, until recently No. 10′s director of communications and former member of the Vote Leave campaign, quit on Wednesday evening following a major row over whether he would take the role in the PM’s office.
His departure has also sparked rumours that other senior members of staff, including Dominic Cummings, could depart Downing Street.
But with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit just weeks away and Covid-19 deaths almost reaching 600 in a single day, staff in the PM’s office have been harshly criticised for distracting from the “major crises” currently underway.
In response to a tweet from the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who reported that some of Cain’s allies could quit with him, shadow health and social care secretary Jonathan Ashworth wrote: “Pathetic. We are in the most serious public health crisis for over 100 years.
“We passed the grim milestone of 50,000 deaths today yet Downing Street spin doctors are preoccupied with squabbling likes rats in a sack...”
It is a line that the Labour Party appears to have taken as a whole. BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Lewis Goodall reported a statement from a party spokesperson, which read: “On the day the UK became the first country in Europe to report 50,000 coronavirus deaths and the public endured another day of lockdown, Boris Johnson’s government is fighting like rats in a sack over who gets what job.”
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee used similar terms to describe the infighting during an appearance on BBC Question Time on Wednesday evening, telling viewers: “There is absolute chaos inside No. 10.
“These are major, major crises such as we haven’t seen in decades, and they are fighting like rats in sacks over who does what job.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer has also commented on the row, describing the matter as “pathetic”.
He told LBC on Thursday morning: “This is pathetic. I think millions of people will be waking up this morning, scratching their heads, saying what on earth is going on?
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re all worried about our health and our families, we’re all worried about our jobs, and this lot are squabbling behind the door of Number 10.
“It’s pathetic. Pull yourselves together, focus on the job in hand.”
But with rumours about potential departures from Downing Street continue to swirl, former Tory minister Jake Berry said Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “stamping his Johnsonian authority” following Cain’s resignation.
The MP for Rossendale and Darwen told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The departure of Lee Cain does show, I think, that the prime minister is taking back control of his government.
“He’s moving from a campaigning operation to an operation solely focused on good government. I think it’s a good move for the prime minister.
“As we go past that grim milestone, as you say, of 50,000 deaths from this appalling disease, it’s high time, I think, that there was a bit of a change of guard in Number 10.”
As anger grows over the focus on tensions inside the PM’s office, “rats” quickly trended on social media with others also fiercely criticising their conduct.
In response to a tweet about rumours that Cummings could be the next to quit, actor Hugh Grant, a vocal critic both of Brexit and the current government, simply wrote: “Ship. Rats.”
Meanwhile, businesswoman and Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden – also a prominent critic of Johnson – shared a similar tweet, writing: “Yep... the rats that holed the shop now jumping it.”