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Dominic Cummings, die-hard Brexiteer and UK sovereignty fetishist, is now part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s problems — and no longer a solution. Like all of Britain, most of Europe has been agog watching the Dominic Cummings affair. It was even the strongest trending topic on Twitter in France.
The spectacle of a British prime minister having to do Downing Street statements on two consecutive days to defend an aide who usually never speaks to the press or offers TV interviews has been gripping political drama.
Dialogue of the deaf
In Brussels, the entire Brexit negotiating machine has been stuck in neutral, with no movement for some weeks.
For their part, the EU heads of government understandably feel that they cannot re-write their rule book just to create a special status for Britain.
The British government, in contrast, is digging in, believing that it has a double mandate from both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election to insist on a new relationship with other European nations.
In addition, the Johnson government seeks trade deals across the globe, independent of EU laws or treaty obligations. It is a dialogue of the deaf for the time being.
Meanwhile, UK business does not know what plans to make. Trucking companies face hundreds of millions of new customs forms to fill in. Just-in-time deliveries? More like, just kidding.
The UK’s creative industries, from advertising to video, employ 2 million workers and produce £30bn in exports of services, are also completely unsure what market access they will have — or the possibility of key workers to move to and fro within Europe.
Never the twain shall meet
But time is running out. By the end of June, the UK and EU have to decide whether to extend negotiations into 2021.
The EU has produced a 450-page list of issues to be negotiated and the UK its own 250-page draft treaty, which goes in a completely different direction.
Anyone who has negotiated anything at all can glance at the two texts and see instantly that this is the stuff of months — indeed years — of negotiations, as every comma can cost money to some corner of the combined Europe-wide economy and its 450 million consumers.
Plus, it stands to reason to assume that — no matter how much the UK government believes entitled to dig in — the EU has the upper hand in this negotiation.
Boris Johnson’s big problem
The problem for the prime minister is that most of the British public thinks that Brexit has been done with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU Treaties in January.
One half of the British public believes that the Brexit war has been won. The other half simply wants to move on.
But negotiating the “peace” is not easy – indeed, it is by far the hardest part for the UK to accomplish.
Cummings as the linchpin
Jaw-jaw, as Winston Churchill used to say, is certainly better than war-war, but for some the Brexit war can never end.
One of these eternal warriors is undoubtedly Dominic Cummings. More than two decades ago, he linked up with others like Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and cultivated rising Tory politicians like Michael Gove to push the idea of quitting the EU into mainstream UK politics.
In Downing Street, Mr. Cummings has been at the heart of the push for maximum amputational rupture with the EU — to be done as fast and as furiously as possible.
He is not satisfied with leaving the EU and settling down to a negotiated modus vivendi, like the Swiss or Norwegians.
A bad omen
But the coronavirus crisis has thrown these plans into the air. All four key players in the Brexit deal — the two heads of the negotiating teams, David Frost for the UK and Michel Barnier for the EU, as well as Mr. Cummings and Boris Johnson — were felled by the coronavirus with its lingering after-effects.
No one in any EU government is paying any attention to Brexit. Europe’s leaders have moved on and focus on the health threat and the frightening economic fallout from the pandemic.
Cummings in for a big surprise
As much as Dominic Cummings is accustomed to playing political games with the British public, and at its expense, he is in for a surprise.
As much as he may hope, even feel destined, that his 20-year campaign to cut links with Europe will come to fruition, he finds himself in a different game now.
The full weight of the EU is a mighty political opponent to have.
Moreover, whatever the rights and wrongs of his recent actions evading the lockdown, Mr. Cummings’ authority is now much less.
Too many MPs, from Tory ranks (!) as well as commentators generally supporting the Prime Minister, have called for him to go.
One Tory Minister has even resigned over the Cummings affair. And all those who think of the UK as an entirely civil country shall be reminded that civil servants can smell a wounded weakened beast better than any predator in the jungle.
Mr. Cummings still is the PM’s “eminence grise.” However, far from omnipotent, he will now find his orders challenged and circumvented.
He and the prime minister may try and force through a No Deal crash out Brexit. But what has changed for the main advocate of such a risky adventure, is that the UK economy, because of coronavirus, is now much weaker than the Brexiteers ever deemed possible.
It is indeed fair to say that it is now on life support. It needs a ventilator and medication — but not the added pressure of Brexit.
By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)
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