Dusk was falling as Sonia Khan presented her government security pass to the waiting officials and slipped into Downing Street.
In the five weeks since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, special advisers or ‘Spads’ like her had grown accustomed to being summoned to sudden meetings at any time of the day or night.
However, 8pm was not exactly routine and friends say she had an air of anxiety as she hurried from her office at the Treasury.
Her appointment was with Dominic Cummings, chief henchman to the Prime Minister, and a man whose reputation for malign mastery is said — by enemies and admirers alike — to have reached levels unseen at No. 10 since Alastair Campbell terrorised Whitehall during the Tony Blair years.
As later editions of yesterday’s Mail exclusively revealed, Miss Khan’s encounter with Mr Cummings on Thursday evening ended with her being sensationally stripped of her government credentials, sacked and frogmarched by police out of Downing Street.
She had been accused of leaking Brexit secrets to allies of her ex-boss, the Remain-loving former Chancellor Philip Hammond.
It was revealed in yesterday’s Mail that Miss Khan’s (right) encounter with Mr Cummings on Thursday evening ended with her being sensationally stripped of her government credentials, sacked and frogmarched by police out of Downing Street
Yesterday, as news of her unceremonious departure was being discussed around Westminster, the air was thick with claims of bullying, character assassination and an unedifying struggle for power that mature democracies such as Britain normally associate with oppressive regimes in countries such as Russia and Venezuela.
No one has emerged from this unscathed. Not Miss Khan who, as an 18-year-old, electrified David Cameron’s first conference as PM, but who now faces claims that she was dismissed because she had been less than straightforward about her contacts with allies of Mr Hammond, which she denies.
And certainly not Mr Cummings, the political maverick behind the 2016 Vote Leave campaign and the Svengali whom Boris has entrusted to deliver his ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge to depart the EU by October 31.
Love him or hate him, no one denies Mr Cummings is largely responsible for the new febrile atmosphere at the heart of government.
‘The place is dripping with fear and loathing,’ says one figure. ‘And picking on a young twentysomething girl is not a good look.’
Others, who lived through the dithering of the Theresa May years, have a different take. ‘There was so much leaking from government it was paralysing. Dom is determined to stop it,’ says a Cummings ally.
All the same, the fact that Miss Khan was sacked without the knowledge of her boss, Sajid Javid, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has stoked rumours of a rift between No.10 and the Treasury.
Love him or hate him, no one denies Mr Cummings is largely responsible for the new febrile atmosphere at the heart of government. ‘The place is dripping with fear and loathing,’ says one figure. ‘And picking on a young twentysomething girl is not a good look’
Only days ago, Mr Javid was embarrassed after details of his autumn Budget were leaked by Downing Street before he had even approved it. Now he must prepare for next week’s comprehensive spending reviews without one of his key advisers.
With Boris fighting fires on so many Brexit fronts, another bust-up is hardly helpful.
So just what is going on and what do the circumstances of this dramatic dismissal of a key special adviser tell us about the new regime in Downing Street?
Unshaven and dressed in one of his scruffy T-shirts, Mr Cummings was in no mood for niceties when he summoned Miss Khan to his ground-floor lair at Downing Street on Thursday evening.
In the warren of offices, his is the most important — not just for its proximity to the Prime Minister’s but also because it is unquestionably the seat of power.
If Cummings’s promotion to the top of the No. 10 tree has been rapid, Miss Khan’s trajectory has been no less impressive.
Only five years ago, she was an intern at the Taxpayers’ Alliance pressure group. But the political science graduate from Birmingham University had already caught admiring Tory eyes. At the 2010 conference in her home city, she received huge applause after telling how she had ‘instantly felt Cameron’s warmth and compassion’.
With her Muslim background and experience volunteering for Age Concern and for her local hospital, she was a poster girl for Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing, which she joined as a student.
Weeks after joining the Taxpayers’ Alliance, she was made campaigns manager for grassroots issues. From there, it was a smooth journey into government. ‘She has a brilliant mind and is a very good organiser,’ says a friend. Miss Khan was recruited by Liam Fox at the Department for International Trade.
Then, last September, came the appointment that sealed her fate. Philip Hammond asked her to join him at the Treasury to replace his long-standing aide, Poppy Trowbridge.
Out of a job after Mr Hammond resigned before he could be fired in Boris’s sensational round of sackings in his first day as PM, Miss Khan was offered a chance to return to International Trade with Dr Fox’s successor, Liz Truss.
She had previously worked with Ms Truss at the Treasury.
But when Mr Javid called asking her to become his Spad, she felt she couldn’t refuse him. ‘She was advised not to because it would have meant coming much more under the influence of Dominic, but it was a big job and she’s an ambitious girl,’ says an insider.
Spads are taxpayer-funded posts and Miss Khan was hired on ‘pay band’ Level Two, with a salary of between £53,000 and £70,000.
Since his arrival at No. 10, Cummings has put Spads on notice that he will not tolerate leaks. Was he itching for a scalp?
The leaking of sensational disclosures about No Deal preparations earlier this month, so-called Operation Yellowhammer, is known to have enraged him.
Now he had information — if not about the Yellowhammer leak — that pointed to contacts of pro-Remain Tories Mr Hammond and Dominic Grieve.
According to insiders, the exchanges between Mr Cummings and Miss Khan inside his office went like this.
He ran through a list of names and demanded to know if she had spoken to any of them in the past week. She said she had not.
On the list were journalists as well as so-called allies of Mr Hammond.
M R CUMMINGS put it to Miss Khan that she was suspected of leaking. She denied it. He then asked to see her work-issued mobile phone and scrolled through her calls and messages.
It is understood there was no obvious sign of contacts with the people he had asked about.
He then asked her to hand over her private mobile phone. According to our information, it showed she had, in the previous 48 hours, spoken to an individual with whom she had denied being in contact.
At that point it is understood Mr Cummings told her she was fired. He called police to escort her from the building to the gates of Downing Street. Both her Whitehall email account and her government security clearance were instantly cancelled. The scene of her departure was witnessed by other officials including special advisers, who were at No. 10 for a Brexit meeting.
One said: ‘I have never seen anything like it. It was brutal and Sonia was very shaken. Dom stood there in a T-shirt and ripped her to shreds.’
Whitehall special advisers are a hard-working, tight-knit group. Some believe Miss Khan’s humiliation was designed to be public in order to send a message of what could happen to them.
‘It was a case of “encourager les autres”,’ says one insider. In other words — a warning.
The tactics sent a chill through Whitehall. Such is the Brexit crisis that Mr Cummings is determined to stamp out the culture of leaks that existed under Mrs May.
For Dominic Cummings, who is not in robust good health, these are extremely testing times. He postponed major surgery when Mr Johnson asked him to take charge of the No. 10 operation — to be his chief of staff in all but name.
Downing Street insiders have been shocked to see him doubled up in pain on occasion when they enter his office.
Married to Mary Wakefield, deputy editor of The Spectator magazine with whom he has a two-year-old son, Cummings is working seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Although tall and slight, he is hard as nails, a legacy of his days working as a bouncer for a nightclub where his father also worked.
What is clear is that Miss Khan’s previous role working for Mr Hammond almost certainly was a contributory factor to her departure.
‘Dominic blames Hammond for everything, from frustrating Brexit and No Deal preparations to conspiring to kill off Boris’s plans,’ says a friend.
‘The new regime are terrified their whole Brexit plan could be derailed by the Tory rebels or any single leak. Hammond gets the blame for everything.’
Last night, Tory friends of Miss Khan were still shocked by her defenestration. Morale is at rock bottom. ‘Sonia is a lovely, bubbly girl and I cannot imagine her getting involved in anything underhand. She’s also a true believer in Brexit,’ said one.
But the war of words looks set to go on. A Spad loyal to No. 10 hit back at Miss Khan’s claim to have been pro-Brexit, saying: ‘The idea that she is some committed Brexiteer is as believable as the idea her then-boss, Hammond, was preparing for No Deal.’
For Miss Khan this weekend, the compassion and warmth of the Cameron days must seem like a distant memory.