Dominic Cummings will be the architect and face of any Brexit riots, and we should never let him forget it

Johnson’s adviser is whipping up hate against MPs. But it is not the Commons that is stopping Brexit happening – it is the logical contradictions inherent in the project itself

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Friday 27 September 2019 13:23
Karl Turner confronts Dominic Cummings over death threats

Dominic Cummings, the man who seems to enjoy much influence over the prime minister, believes that we will have a “violent, popular uprising” if a second referendum was held and Remain won.

How much of that, one wonders, is mere objective analysis, the product of that vast analytical intellect of his; and how much is in fact wishful thinking. “I predict a riot” is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cummings is hardly a dispassionate observer of the political scene. Described by David Cameron as a “career psychopath” for his disruptive, confrontational ways behind the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, with all its reputation for scrupulously truthful information and fastidious attitude to debating opponents, and which is, very possibly, behind much of the offensive language now being bandied around – “surrender act”, Brexit betrayals, traitors and all that. It suits very well his ends to try to pitch people against parliament, or “the Remain Establishment”, with Boris Johnson in the unlikely role of plucky tribune of the people.

Mr Cummings’ words sound very much like a threat. As they were summarised in one newspaper headline: “Deliver Brexit or face riots.” There is a plain attempt to intimidate anyone who does not equate the 2016 referendum result with a desire to leave the EU under any conditions using all means necessary – no deal if needs be. That proposition was not on any ballot paper.

Yet even if it were true, and every Leave voter was now gagging to get out of the EU without any deal or any other conditions, Cummings’ incitement to a form of terror would be unforgivable. He talks about a repeat of the 1992 Los Angeles riots on British streets, or some emulation of the gilet jaunes protests in France. To do so in the office he holds is a disgrace and, surely, against every tradition of the British civil service and its codes of conduct.

An unnamed cabinet minister, perhaps one close to Cummings, goes further, even suggesting ways in which the extra-parliamentary Brexiteers might organise themselves: “In this country we never had the gilets jaunes or the LA riots. People don’t think it’s possible in this country just because it has not happened before. Now they have a model – gilets jaunes – they have encrypted phones to co-ordinate it, and it only takes a couple of nasty populist frontmen to inspire people.”

Imagine if Jeremy Corbyn or Len McCluskey started on like that? But they do not, because the labour movement has more regard for democracy than the Conservatives and the likes of Cummings: the world turned upside down.

In fact this vision of a dystopian near-future sounds very much like the 2016 Leave campaign, headed up by the nasty, if amusing sometimes, Boris Johnson and the nasty, if invariably polite, Michael Gove, with the nasty Cummings in the back of the big red coach doing the nasty strategic thinking.

A nasty business all round, and it wouldn’t need that many apparently. The unnamed cabinet minister goes on: “If we have a referendum with 30 million people who vote, and we vote remain by 66 per cent, that’s ten million people who are unhappy...

“Even if 99 per cent of them shrug it off, that’s still 100,000 really angry people who will write to their MP and not let it go. It doesn’t take much and soon you have tens of thousands of people on the streets.”

So that, it seems, is the way the British react to an election result, or could do, or should do, or should threaten to, shall we say.

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In reality much of the undoubted anger and frustration in the country is directed, as it should be, at our incompetent government and its utter failure to do anything. It is not the Commons that is stopping Brexit happening, but the UK’s own red lines and the logical contradictions inherent in the Brexit project. At its simplest, too many people are starting to get very upset because they cannot have their cake and eat it – and they want to blame traitors and saboteurs and “establishment” plots for what is, in reality, an undeliverable project. Because even if we left with no deal and traded on WTO terms as Nigel Farage wishes, meaning no financial settlement with the EU and full-on tariffs we would still at some point have to reach some kind of agreement with the EU on terms of trade, citizens’ rights, access to markets, money, Ireland, Gibraltar and all the rest of it. There is no such thing as a clean Brexit.

It is a shame, because Leave might actually win a second referendum, a Final Say to make sure the public actually assent to what is about to happen – something that’s not necessarily what they thought they were getting in 2016. Cummings once (in 2015) talked, perfectly reasonably, about holding such a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, if only as a tactic for the Leave campaign (which he called the NO campaign at that stage), as follows: “Expanding the debate to consider a second negotiation and a second referendum offers potential advantages. It also has potential disadvantages. But as a matter of fact a NO vote does not mean we would immediately leave and it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote, and therefore this could be turned to the advantage of NO. There is no escape from the fact that ending the legal supremacy of EU law is an extremely complex enterprise, unravelling decades of legislation, legal judgements, and practice. There is no scenario in which all the problems caused by the EU can be solved in one swift stroke.”

The truth is that winning a Final Say referendum would be much easier than winning what Johnson calls a “functional” majority in parliament. Under the present party system and the vagaries of first-past-the-post, the next general election could mean two things deeply inimical to the Cummings vision; another hung, ie “Remain” parliament, with MPs this time elected on revoke or second referendum pledges; and the installation of Nigel Farage and a small band of Brexit Party MPs on those green benches. Farage and the DUP would be volatile and unreliable partners for any future Johnson-led minority government, and, even after the recent purge, there would still be Tory dissidents ready to cause trouble. Far better to put the case for no-deal Brexit out there to the British people, offer them the chance to have a clean Brexit, and abide by the result – without the threat of anarchy in the UK.

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