He is the man who vowed to “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”, but as Dominic Cummings stalked out of Downing Street for the final time yesterday, Britain’s EU departure was far from resolved.
Boris Johnson’s chief aide cultivated a poisonous and pugnacious aura around the prime minister, critics say, and few people — particularly among Conservative MPs — will be sorry to see him go.
But now, as the dust from a bombastic week in Westminster settles, minds will be focusing on the future, and whether Cummings’ exit might smooth the way for accord with Brussels.
It’s undeniable that the 48-year-old was pivotal in shaping Johnson’s hard-nosed Brexit approach. He masterminded the insurgent (and successful) Vote Leave campaign in 2016, was behind No 10’s sensational prorogation of parliament three years later, and rubber-stamped the culling of Tory MPs who refused to support his boss’s strategy. Cummings was ruthless, and without him the government has surely lost a little of its Brexit muscle.
This certainly appears to be the thinking in Europe. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who sits on the European Parliament’s Brexit committee, said yesterday that the aide’s dismissal was likely a sign that Johnson was beginning to bend to EU demands.
“I do believe that as long as Dominic Cummings was chief advisor to the Prime Minister, a negotiated settlement and agreement was impossible, because my deep belief is that [he] wanted the UK to exit the transition period without a deal,” Lamberts, who leads the European Parliament’s Greens contingent, told the BBC.
He and Brussels colleagues have been emboldened by Joe Biden’s electoral success in America — the President-Elect is, unlike his predecessor, a staunch supporter of European integration, and has made his disdain for Johnson’s Brexit approach clear.
And yet, as recently as Thursday, officials left the negotiating table in London no further forward. The areas of impasse — fishing rights, state aid rules, and perhaps most prickly, a regulatory level playing field — haven’t shifted for months and appear truly insurmountable. (Both sides accuse the other of inflexibility).
From Downing Street, the official line is Cummings’ departure won’t change this: “absolutely not” was a spokesperson’s response, when asked whether the development would spark a softening of Johnson’s stance. This seems consistent with his decision to keep Lord David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator and ardent believer that Britain must not sacrifice its regulatory autonomy, in post.
But the prime minister isn’t shy when it comes to screeching policy U-turns, and the pressure on him to find a deal grows daily. Excluding Spain, Britain is headed for the deepest coronavirus-induced recession in Europe, the European Commission announced last week, with a significantly slower rate of recovery than the continent’s average. Reeling from the pandemic’s economic sucker-punch, Britain could ill afford the financial upset of no-deal too, experts warn.
Time to reach an agreement is also running dangerously short. Deadlines have come and gone for months, but a truly final cliffedge is crystallising around early-December. Should a deal be reached by then, there’ll be just enough time for scrutiny and ratification before year’s end, when the law dictates that Britain must leave.
Having cut ties with Cummings, a right-hand man inclined towards no-deal, now — if ever — seems the moment for Johnson to rethink his don’t-blink-first mentality.
The time for meaningful negotiating gymnastics has long since passed, however; at this eleventh hour, concession is the only way forward. Short of his chief advisor, it’s a call the Prime Minister must make solo, prepared to suffer — or celebrate — the consequences alone.