Downing Street has been forced to insist it is focused on tackling coronavirus after Boris Johnson's communications chief quit in turmoil.

No10 was left reeling from the resignation of former Mirror Chicken Lee Cain from the heart of the Prime Minister's press operation.

The future of senior adviser Dominic Cummings – a close ally of Mr Cain – was also hanging in the balance amid a power struggle at the top of Government.

Ex-Vote Leave press officer Mr Cain walked away after a furious row over whether he should become the PM's chief of staff.

Of all the internal Westminster bubble stories over the years, this seems like one for the geekiest of geeks.

But the fact it came as we hit 50,000 Covid-19 deaths demonstrates that No10’s communication to the public - and its leadership - is crucial.

It's all about the axis of power around the Prime Minister

Labour leader Keir Starmer branded the chaos “pathetic”.

He told LBC radio: “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 No10. It's pathetic. Pull yourselves together, focus on the job in hand.”

So who are the powerful characters at the centre of the row, and what does it all mean for the handling of the pandemic?

We’ve explained the 6 biggest power players involved - and what it means for the country.

So why does it matter to the country?

The PM needs to have advisors who talk to each other and don't plot against each other

Most people have never heard of the PM’s unelected aides and don’t give two hoots about them - and why should they?

But it’s important because top civil servants and Special Advisors are crucial to the functioning of any normal government.

If they start fighting, operating in cliques and withholding information from each other, it can affect the PM's political direction - and it means mistakes that affect people’s lives are more likely.

Take for example the government’s communications strategy over coronavirus.

Despite more than £100m spent on outside consultants, critics say the messaging over Covid - especially the many, many lockdown changes - was conflicting and unclear.

It took days to follow simplistic announcements - which were sometimes ‘bounced’ into being by political pressure, media pressure or leaks - with full documents that show what rules people should follow.

And ministers have repeatedly got details of the rules wrong on national TV and radio. That’s not just a Westminster spin story - these are rules that affect all our lives and, ultimately, are meant to save lives.

James Slack, the PM’s official spokesman, insisted the communications strategy had been good enough. He said: “I think we’ve been responding to what’s been an unprecedented global pandemic which has been a significant challenge for countries all across Europe and throughout the world.

“What we’ve worked hard on is promoting clear messages about the need to wash hands, wear face coverings, keep distance from other people.”

What else does it mean for Britain?

There is, of course, the small matter of the coronavirus pandemic

A Downing Street at war has other consequences too.

Tory MPs have complained they’re frozen out of the No10 operation, unable to discern what their own government is doing. That means laws could be tougher to get through Parliament - even with an 80-strong majority.

A leading Conservative backbencher said there had been "unhappiness" about the Downing Street operation for some time.

Sir Charles Walker, vice chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told the BBC: “Members of Parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process, and that's no secret.

“The real opportunity here is for the chief of staff position to be filled by someone who has good links with the Conservative Party and its representation in the House of Commons."

Tory backbencher Sir Roger Gale said: "The Government, and Downing Street particularly, should be concentrating all of its efforts on the pandemic and on the end game of Brexit, and frankly this is a distraction that cannot and should not be allowed to take place and the Prime Minister has got to get a grip on it."

Then of course there’s the fact that all the time spent on infighting could have been spent on coronavirus work.

The PM's official spokesman James Slack, who confirmed he would replace Mr Cain when he departs in the new year, insisted Mr Johnson was not distracted from the national crisis by the bitter row.

"You've seen from the Prime Minister this week that he's absolutely focused on taking all the steps that are required to equip the country to beat coronavirus," the spokesman said.

And what does it mean for TV press conferences?

A colonial courtroom (yes really) is being converted for daily press briefings

New TV spokeswoman Allegra Stratton was due to be leading daily televised press conferences as early as this month.

But the White House-style briefings won’t start until December at the earliest as No10 staffers continue to try to soundproof the room.

Officials plan to use an old colonial courtroom in 9 Downing Street, where off-camera press briefings were moved to before the pandemic.

But with its high ceilings and wooding fixtures the acoustics are terrible, with the spokesman barely audible just a few metres away.

The budget for making the room TV-friendly is not yet known.

No10 insist the timetable for briefings to start hasn’t slipped because of the latest internal war.

Lee Cain: The spin chief who quit in a blaze of infighting

Lee Cain arrives in Downing Street today

Lee Cain has been at the Prime Minister's side for four-and-a-half years and is one of his closest allies.

A one-time Mirror Chicken who hounded David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign, he reinvented himself as a hardcore Brexiteer and was a Vote Leave press officer during the bitter EU referendum in 2016.

His loyalty was rewarded with a job as an adviser to Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom before he quickly became a media aide to Johnson at the Foreign Office.

When Johnson quit as Foreign Secretary in 2018 over Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, the pair immediately began plotting their path to No10 – climaxing in Johnson's landslide Tory leadership victory last summer.

The plan worked: Johnson become Prime Minister and Cain his director of communications.

The 38-year-old is fiercely loyal both to Dominic Cummings, who was his boss at Vote Leave, and the PM.

But as Downing Street's media operation undergoes an overhaul before daily televised briefings begin next year, Cain increasingly feared becoming sidelined.

It was suggested he could become the PM's chief of staff – giving him unrivalled power across Whitehall.

Conservative MPs and the PM's fiancee Carrie Symonds were aghast, with many bridling at Cain's sometimes brusque manner.

The backlash to the plan, which only emerged on Tuesday night, shocked insiders and doomed the promotion.

Ultimately, Cain felt he had no option but to walk away.

The PM’s official spokesman (below) insisted Cain’s resignation had nothing to do with the leak of lockdown rules that prompted furore in Whitehall.

“You can see from Lee’s statement he sets out very clearly the reasons for his departure and categorically that’s not one of them,” he told journalists.

James Slack: The softly-spoken new spin chief

James Slack is a very different character to many of those in No10

James Slack made the successful transition from being the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman – PMOS, in Whitehall jargon – under Theresa May to performing the role under Boris Johnson.

May plucked him from Fleet Street, where he was the Daily Mail's political editor, to be her trusted mouthpiece seven months after she entered No10.

He took up the post in February 2017.

He has earned the ire of many on social media for penning the Mail’s infamous Brexit story on judges, which the paper gave the headline “enemies of the people”.

But despite this “Slacky” is widely-respected across government and, crucially, by “lobby” journalists who know that he was “one of us” not that long ago.

He is seen as fair, polite, decent and someone who can be trusted both by Downing Street insiders and political correspondents.

Calm under the heaviest pressure and – unlike many in this No10 – not one to naturally seek confrontation, he navigated the worst days of May's Brexit-doomed premiership with good grace and, when appropriate and necessary, gallows humour.

Once Cain has officially gone, Sheffield United super fan Slack, who has the Blades' badge as his mobile phone cover, will be promoted to director of communications.

Allegra Stratton: The TV spokeswoman with a new power base

Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton

Allegra Stratton's rise through Whitehall has been rapid.

In a matter of weeks, she will become one of the Government's most familiar faces – probably behind only the Prime Minister and Chancellor – when, as the PM's press secretary, she leads daily, White House-style TV briefings.

Stratton, who turns 40 this month, was a political correspondent at the Labour-supporting broadsheet The Guardian before becoming political editor at BBC2's Newsnight. The show apologised after she was accused of demonising a working mum on benefits, accusing her of making a “choice” to claim from the state in an interview.

She quit the corporation to become national editor at ITV and was Robert Peston's sidekick on his Sunday morning show.

But she switched sides from scrutinising politicians to promoting them when she took on the role of director of strategic communications at the Treasury this year.

She is partly-responsible for the success of “Brand Rishi” as the Chancellor pumped tens of billions of pounds in the coronavirus fightback.

As soon as it became known Downing Street wanted to televise its daily briefings for journalists, Stratton was installed as favourite for the job.

Lee Cain apparently wanted a rival to land the post but was overruled by Boris Johnson.

The PM clearly hopes Stratton can sprinkle her Sunak stardust on No10's spin operation.

Stratton's husband is James Forsyth, political editor of the Tory-backing Spectator magazine, which Johnson used to edit.

Sunak was Forsyth's best man at his wedding to Stratton, having become pals with Forsyth at the school they attended in the 1990s – £41,709-a-year Winchester College.

Carrie Symonds: The fiancee who put pressure on the PM

Carrie Symonds is said to have objected to Cain's appointed as Chief of Staff

Carrie Symonds and Lee Cain are very different personalities.

Symonds, 32, is a consensus-builder whose passions are the environment and animal welfare.

As a press aide to former Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, Cain backed culling tens of thousands of badgers and yesterday(THU) he was pictured carrying a disposable coffee cup.

It was no secret around Whitehall that the pair did not get on.

Yet they did at least have one common interest – the success of Boris Johnson.

Symonds, a former Conservative Party director of communications, is fiercely ambitious.

She has worked for Culture Minister John Whittingdale, former Cabinet Minister Sajid Javid and one-time London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith – now the Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park.

She is credited with helping Johnson focus on climate change and animal rights, and was at his side when he entered No10 and when he delivered his first speech to Tory conference as party leader.

Cain meanwhile, moulded by Dominic Cummings, wanted to crush dissenters and drive home the Government's message at all costs.

But when the working day was over Cain and other advisers left the office and Johnson went upstairs to the Downing Street flat, it was Symonds who had his ear.

As a seasoned spin doctor in her own right, she too can offer media and presentation advice.

And, as the PM's fiancee and mother to what is thought to be his sixth child, Wilfred – born just weeks after Johnson left intensive care after almost dying from coronavirus – her advice comes from a different perspective.

It seems she helped torpedo Cain's promotion to the chief of staff role – though she would not wish to be cast as a Lady Macbeth of Downing Street nor read headlines like: “Carrie's War”.

Perhaps her influence will shape the future direction of No10's operation – from a combative style designed to smash opposition to one which aims to build consensus and gently persuade.

Dominic Cummings: The sandpaper svengali who rubs many up the wrong way

Dominic Cummings came out from the shadows when he broke lockdown

Dominic Cummings is the controversial, uncompromising svengali who strikes fear into Whitehall special advisers and inspires cult-like loyalty among his few fans.

None was closer to Cummings, 48, than his protege and former Vote Leave colleague Lee Cain.

Jaws dropped around Westminster when, moments after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister last July, it was announced Cummings would be his senior adviser.

Immediately it was clear this No10 would treat the daily, repetitive grind of government with the short-term passion and intensity of an ongoing political campaign: taking no prisoners, waging war on dissenters and dividing advisers, Tory MPs, journalists and civil servants into two camps – “with us” and “against us”.

David Cameron once labelled Cummings, who was an adviser to then Education Secretary Michael Gove, a “career psychopath”.

Cummings was well-known around Whitehall for a decade.

But he only came to public attention in May this year when the Mirror exposed his lockdown-busting trip to his native County Durham.

That episode very nearly cost him his job.

But Johnson, who in his political life values loyalty above all else, made the decision to stick by him – despite the message it sent to the lockdown-abiding public, many of whom felt dismayed, betrayed and deceived that it was “one rule for them, another for everyone else”.

Cummings was the mercurial Vote Leave chief who beat the Brexit odds to persuade Britain to “Take Back Control” in 2016.

In refusing to make his acolyte Cain the Downing Street chief of staff and instead letting him quit No10, Johnson may indeed finally have taken back control.

Eddie Lister: The quiet long-term ally who’ll stay in post

Edward Lister is more the figure you might have expected to see in No10 in decades gone by

Eddie Lister is the quiet, septuagenerian backroom fixer who shaped Boris Johnson's eight-year reign as London Mayor.

“Steady Eddie”, 71, is seen as an organised, efficient manager and trusted with sound judgement, offering honest advice and wielding calm authority – a complete contrast with Dominic Cummings, then.

Now Lord Udny-Lister, having been elevated to the peerage earlier this year, he was appointed the Prime Minister's chief strategic adviser when Johnson entered No10 in July 2019.

Seen as a moderating influence, he led the Tory flagship Wandsworth Council in South West London for 19 years.

He was Johnson's chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning at City Hall when Johnson strived to appear as a consensual, One Nation Conservative in EU-loving London.

That was before the Tory leader decided his best path to Downing Street lay in siding with Cummings, fighting to quit the EU and disrupting politics as we understood it.