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Dominic Cummings is a fantasist without an adequate Brexit plan – so much for being a ‘political genius’

Boris Johnson’s adviser is likely to leave Downing Street with his bitterness at sclerotic Whitehall only enhanced, his failure no doubt to be blamed on others, and with Britain no closer to reaching a Brexit settlement three years after the referendum

Simon Richards
Wednesday 31 July 2019 18:57 BST
Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings claims EU is 'dominated by France' when speaking to Treasury Committee in April 2016

Among the many appointments to Boris Johnson’s government, few generated more intrigue than that of Dominic Cummings. The former Michael Gove staffer and Vote Leave director reportedly only accepted the adviser role at No 10 after deciding to postpone an operation until after Brexit day, further buttressing his self-made reputation for single-minded commitment to his causes.

Cummings also cultivates his profile through a blog which over the years has combined lengthy tributes to scientific discoveries with quotable invective aimed at his many political enemies. His account of government mixes critique of Whitehall dysfunction and praise for “the error-correcting institutions of science and markets” with historical anecdotes of individuals Cummings considers brilliant; Bismarck is a particular favourite, as is – oddly – Jean Monnet, among the key figures behind the foundation of the EU.

Monnet, Cummings tells us, was a man who “understood how to step back and build institutions” and whose work is “a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done”. Cummings leaves no doubt that he aspires to be a man in Monnet’s image, but this time with the aim of reversing his life project.

This self-estimation has been reflected in the media response to his return to government. Commentators have praised his “huge brain” and strategic sense. It is less clear what attributes he personally brings beyond a sense of cargo cult. Within hours of Johnson’s arrival, orthodox and surely long-planned campaign tools such as targeted Facebook adverts were being described as revolutionary strategy and credited personally to him.

Absent from reporting, though, has been any sense of how Cummings might be more successful than Theresa May in delivering Brexit. Briefings on the new government’s strategy suggest that, this time, and under significant pressure, the EU might fold and agree to amend or even abolish the “backstop” which keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU if all other negotiations fail. Alternatively, the government must just be willing to accept a no deal and the ensuing chaos.

In this they, and Cummings, simply misunderstand the incentives and motivations of the UK’s negotiating partner. The reality is that – with the exception of Ireland – no EU member state will be hit nearly as hard by a no-deal Brexit as the UK itself will, and Brexit is simply a second order problem, not one that exercises political debate, and thus not one where it has any incentive to capitulate to aggressive demands.

This impasse will simply recur in a no-deal scenario, with the EU taking unilateral steps to shelter its massively larger economy while the UK goes begging for imaginary “trade deals”, none of which will be ratified until the shape of the future EU relationship is settled. Nowhere in Cummings’s writing is there any even basic detail on what a future British trade relationship might look like.

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We can also see this tunnel vision in Cummings’s little-reported comments on the Irish border question: he once told his blog readers that Remainers and Irish nationalists had conspired in the lie that customs checks are explicitly prohibited by the Good Friday Agreement. Although the agreement makes no mention of customs, this is because it simply presumes mutual EU membership and so does not cover trade because it is an EU competency, not a bilateral one.

Cummings also omits to mention that Vote Leave itself had promised that border arrangements would be no less open after Brexit, seemingly unaware that the extremely high political stakes of any other arrangement for Ireland would mean that the EU would hold the UK to this promise above all else. So misunderstanding of the opposition is compounded by tactical miscalculation.

Similarly, nothing Cummings has said indicates he has a more imaginative plan to deal with the lack of a government majority in the House of Commons or with a parliament that it is determined to stop a no-deal Brexit. That’s because – in all likelihood – there isn’t one. If parliament finds a means to stop no deal it will do so. The EU still has the whip hand in negotiations, and Ireland still has many overwhelming reasons not to concede on the backstop. The events of the next few months are therefore likely to be driven by these structural forces, not by brilliant (or otherwise) individuals.

Cummings is therefore likely to leave Downing Street – perhaps sooner rather than later – his bitterness at sclerotic Whitehall only enhanced, his failure no doubt to be blamed on others, and with Britain no closer to reaching a Brexit settlement three years after the referendum. Brexit advocates expecting him to be their saviour are likely to get their fingers burnt, and this supposed political genius might one day be remembered as little more than an unusually versatile self-promoter.

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