Today
Fri 4 December 2020

The Prime Minister must decide whether to conclude a Brexit deal with the European Union within days – will he use it as a marker to change his leadership of the country?

The departure of Dominic Cummings has been publicised as a reset moment for the Government. The man that Boris Johnson stood by when he broke lockdown rules in May is now portrayed as the lead cause of the Government’s incompetence and failures. With him has gone Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications and a longstanding Vote Leave ally.

The victors of the drama appear to be Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée, and Allegra Stratton, his new spokesperson. Stratton sees Cummings’ departure as an opportunity to reboot Johnson’s popularity. “You used to be the most popular politician in Britain,” she told him. “Boris wants to be loved and he saw that Allegra had helped Rishi become popular,” said a ministerial aide. “He wanted some of that.”

It will not be so easy to reset. Symonds and Stratton may fondly remember the more consensual Johnson who twice won the London mayoralty but they are fools if they believe that it will be possible to return to the Johnson of yore. 

Post-Brexit, COVID-19 failure and the law-breaking Internal Market Bill, the public and international partners know a new Johnson. They have learned that he is incompetent, that he is not to be trusted, and that he will ride any populist wave to gain power. That will not be undone with a few speeches or policy announcements. 

Cummings takes with him the Government’s agenda. “There’s nobody running anything now,” said one observer. “At least [Theresa] May was trying to. Even Cummings was trying to – albeit in the wrong direction.”

Cummings was no Conservative but he had a vision. His big spending, hard Brexit agenda was far from the business-supporting, fiscally cautious Conservative Party of old. But Johnson backed it and won votes from Labour last year at least as much on the basis of his public spending commitments as Brexit. 

Cummings’ departure leaves a vacuum. Symonds and Stratton may have been uncomfortable with his caustic personality and lack of respect for female colleagues, but no one suggests that they are about to become the Government’s new strategists. 

In the meantime Johnson, famously indecisive and loathe to take note of the detail, has important decisions to make. Most pivotal of all, he must decide whether to conclude a deal with the European Union within days. Doing so has implications not just for the UK economy, but also for his Government’s ability to be a trusted international partner, and for our future relations with the EU and US. It also has political implications, which may be uppermost in Johnson’s mind. 

Without a deal, Johnson would find he has few friends. Relations with the EU would be poisoned at least until there had been a change of prime minister. Incoming US President Joe Biden has made it clear that he will take a dim view of any Brexit conclusion that endangers the Good Friday Agreement, which a ‘no deal’ and Johnson’s Internal Market Bill – a law that will renege on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement – would. A breakdown of these relationships would have implications, not only in economic and trade terms, but also for defence and security

A deal, combined with the removal of the law-breaking bill clauses, would significantly improve Johnson’s relations with EU leaders and Biden. The economy will be harmed either way – which economists predict will be permanent, not the temporary hit of the pandemic – but a deal would at least mitigate part of the damage. 

But Johnson has backed himself into a corner. A Brexit deal is beyond reach unless he compromises on the ‘level playing field’, which protects against under-cutting workers’ rights, environmental protections and state aid and governance. 

His difficulty is that the Leave vote is an essential part of his electoral coalition. In making sovereignty his key metric, Johnson has made it difficult to back down. Doing so will be branded as an EU victory by Conservative Eurosceptics and Nigel Farage, keen to take Leave votes from Johnson. Johnson is already challenged by Labour in ‘Red Wall’ seats, where recent polling suggests that Labour is substantially ahead. He will be loathe to risk losing more votes to Farage.  

We do not yet know what a rebooted Johnson administration will look like, but he has chosen to pivot to it in challenging times. The pandemic is not over yet – nor is his mishandling of it. Brexit is running out of road – Johnson’s promises of sunlit uplands are about to hit a hard wall at speed. Food shortages, truck tailbacks and lost jobs will arrive within weeks. 

We are about to find out whether Johnson without Cummings is a more capable strategist and leader than he was with him by his side, and whether this weekend was the start of a bright new future for Johnson or the beginning of the end. Much rests on the outcome for us all. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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