Otto English on how the new Prime Minister’s appointment of the toxic trio of Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott and Chloe Westley is a massive hostage to fortune.
At times, the weather this week has felt positively apocalyptic.
Central London seemed like it was going to buckle under the intense heat yesterday as Britain melted in the hottest July day on record. It was like one of those end of the world B pictures from the 1950s, in which an asteroid is heading towards Earth and there’s nothing anyone can do, but look on in helpless horror and sweat.
And much the same could be said of Boris Johnson’s first few days in office.
There were intakes of breath as he brutally dispatched May’s ministers in a cull dubbed the Night of the Long Knives Two and gasps as he put his own people in place.
There was a job for his brother Jo, key roles for discredited figures like Dominic Raab, old school chum Jacob Rees-Mogg and a plum post for Priti Patel – famously sacked from the Cabinet in 2017 after disgracefully trying to run her own foreign policy initiative in Israel.
But, it was the appointment of his special advisers that really set alarm bells ringing.
No Shit Sherlock
First up Dominic Cummings, the architect of Brexit made famous by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War earlier this year.
Depending on who you choose to believe, Cummings is a genius, an evil genius or a rambling blog-writing lunatic, obsessed with ‘the establishment’ and intent on destroying Whitehall from within.
With a reputation for “not suffering fools gladly”, the irascible Cummings co-founded Vote Leave in 2015. Calculating that most people did not understand the EU or our part in it, it was he who conjured up the meaningless “Take Back Control” slogan, he who served up the dishonest promise of “350 million for the NHS” and he who hammered home the bare-faced lie that Turkey would soon be joining the EU and overwhelm Britain with mass migration.
Cummings’ deeply questionable methods have been compared to those of Soviet propaganda and that’s even before you come to Vote Leave’s use of data mining and data analytics to target voters on Facebook. Vote Leave was eventually found guilty of overspending – or what some might call ‘cheating’ – in the EU Referendum and was fined a paltry £61,000 after funnelling £675,315 through its offshoot, BeLeave, a ‘youth movement’ set up by Darren Grimes.
Vote Leave was eventually found guilty of overspending… Cummings is currently held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to turn up to a committee investigating fake news.
Cummings is currently held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to turn up to a committee investigating fake news so how he will get parliamentary access is open to question. Perhaps he doesn’t care.
Johnson clearly doesn’t or has calculated that having Cummings onside outweighs any of the negatives that come with it. But, it could yet prove to be a massive miscalculation.
Vote Leave Reunion
Also rumoured to be on board the Boris Bus is Cummings’ colleague from Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott.
Reports have suggested that the founder of the opaquely funded Taxpayers’ Alliance will imminently be named as an advisor to Sajid Javid, the incoming Chancellor. Elliott, editor-at-large at Brexit Central is a key figure in the circle of nine pressure groups and dubious ‘charities’ that occupy a single address in Tufton Street.
Less reported, but equally troubling, Elliott was a founding member of the group the ‘Conservative Friends of Russia’ – noticeable for its uncritical cheerleading of Vladimir Putin.
To have one disgraced high-profile lobbyist on the team might seem like a miscalculation. To have two seems like recklessness. But, three?
Yesterday, it was announced that Chloe Westley, campaign manager at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, would also be joining Johnson’s team as his digital advisor.
Ms Westley, sometime author of risible poetry and the star of bizarre videos in which she tries to take down ‘champagne socialists’, has been a rising star in Brexit circles since the EU Referendum.
Her group of friends and connections contains controversial Leave figures including Darren Grimes, Lucy Harris of Leavers of Britain, and, of course, Matthew Elliott.
Chloe has a reputation for taking offence even as she tries to dish it out. Journalists report that any criticism of her can result in peculiar phone calls and angry emails from ‘supporters’ and I myself received a threatening email last year after writing a satirical blog about her.
Hiring erratic figures like Westley is a risky strategy. And, already, the appointment is being dogged with controversy after tweets sent by her three years ago came to light showing apparent support for a key figure on the far-right.
In 2016, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as ‘Tommy Robinson’) founded Pegida UK, an explicitly anti-Muslim hate group alongside failed UKIP candidate Anne Marie Waters.
The organisation quickly foundered but it established Ms Waters as a figure on the fringes of the Islamophobic far-right and she went on to create the For Britain party. To group is deemed so extreme by the Brexit Party, that former members are prohibited from joining Nigel Farage’s new organisation.
And yet, in July 2016, Chloe Westley thought it appropriate to call Waters “a hero” and encouraged her followers to help the Pegida founder fund a book which would argue that Islam had “injected our civilisation with poison”. Westley has now deleted these tweets, suggesting a thorough spring clean of her social media feed.
But, the pruning could have come too late.
Questions are now being asked about her suitability to be part of the Prime Minister’s team and, Jon Trickett, the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, has called for her to be sacked.
Johnson’s appointment of her and Cummings and potentially Elliott suggests epic rashness at play. Some have suggested that Johnson has an eye on a general election and that having the two founders of the most dishonest and yet successful political campaign of modern times on side could be a game changer for him.
But, it could all go very wrong indeed. By placing such toxic figures at the heart of his government, he is playing political Russian roulette – and there are currently three rounds in the chamber.