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The Populist Alliance: How Vote Leave Came to Rule British Politics

Even despite the resignation of Lord David Frost, the hard Brexit project has been enshrined into Britain’s political institutions with far-reaching consequences, says former Labour MP Ian Lucas

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the morning after the 2016 EU Referendum. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

The Populist AllianceHow Vote Leave Came to Rule British Politics

Even despite the resignation of Lord David Frost, the hard Brexit project has been enshrined into Britain’s political institutions with far-reaching consequences, says former Labour MP Ian Lucas

In the curious political landscape we now populate – still dominated by the Coronavirus pandemic – there are many who urge us to move on from the ghosts of Brexit.

The Labour Party, so deeply scarred by its supporters’ divisions on the issue, now talks of seeking to define a new working relationship with our European neighbours rather than revisiting past arguments. For Boris Johnson personally, Brexit is the useful comfort blanket that he cannot let go of – it was, after all, the policy that made him Prime Minister; a strategy he opted for after writing two newspaper columns including one on the benefits of remaining in the EU.

Michael Gove, on the other hand, was always a Brexit zealot. The Cabinet minister closest to Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, he shares Murdoch’s longstanding and fundamental disdain for the EU, and was able to persuade Johnson that his ambitions were best served by joining the Vote Leave campaign.

When that campaign delivered a win, Johnson hoped that the Vote Leave alliance would take him immediately to Downing Street. His hopes were dashed, however, by the “mendacious” Gove – in the words of David Cameron – who, rather than joining Johnson’s 2016 leadership campaign, announced that “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.

It was a devastating, though temporary, blow for Johnson. The interregnum under Prime Minister Theresa May proved brief and both Johnson and Gove resolved, ultimately, that both of their ambitions would be best served by re-assembling the Vote Leave team, including Gove’s close advisor Dominic Cummings. Curiously, Gove’s 2016 criticism of Johnson bears an uncanny resemblance to recent criticism of Johnson by Cummings.

Johnson and Gove were determined to build a Vote Leave Government, undaunted by the 2018 finding by the independent elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, that their campaign had broken electoral law in securing its 2016 EU Referendum victory.

Cummings was so determined to avoid answering questions that he refused to give evidence to the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee inquiry on disinformation and fake news – for which he was found in contempt of Parliament.

Nonetheless, Johnson was equally determined that the actions of Cummings and Vote Leave should not be scrutinised by the committee, resisting a 2019 call by parliamentarians to instruct his closest advisor to explain his actions. On the contrary, individuals such as Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s CEO, were rewarded by Johnson as Prime Minister with key advisory roles in his new Vote Leave Government.

Despite the resignation of arch-Brexiter Lord David Frost this weekend, relinquishing his role as chief Brexit negotiator, this process has continued to the present day. Just a fortnight ago, Johnson appointed Gisela Stuart, previously placed in the House of Lords by the Prime Minster, to oversee the ‘independence’ of civil service appointments.

Baroness Stuart was a central component of the Vote Leave operation as a member of the organisation’s finance sub-committee. Thus, she was one of a very small group of people who, in June of 2016, was consulted internally to approve a payment to the Vote Leave campaign’s offshoot, BeLeave, of hundreds of thousands of pounds – effectively evading electoral spending limits. She approved the payment personally – a payment later found by the Electoral Commission to be unlawful.

Johnson is assiduous in rewarding former Labour supporters – such as Stuart – who helped the Conservatives to win a majority in 2019. Former Labour MPs Ian Austin and John Woodcock have been rewarded for their support of Johnson by also being appointed to the Lords. Their role is crucial in bolstering Johnson in former Labour areas.

By contrast, the Prime Minister’s treatment of his opponents in the Conservative Party has been ruthless. Former ministers and respected moderates such as Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames, David Gauke and Dominic Grieve have all had their political careers ended in Johnson’s determined quest for a hard Brexit.

Brexit Patronage

Ultimately, Boris Johnson seeks to build a populist alliance, rather than a Conservative project.

His interventionist approach – involving heavy state spending and higher taxes – is anathema to the neoliberal convictions of Thatcherite Conservatives. Again, Michael Gove has been central to this drive, who is now in charge of ‘levelling up’.

Gove is a master of cynical politics. Levelling up is, nominally, the replacement for the rules-based EU regional aid system but appears to be motivated more by US-style ‘pork-barrel’ political payments. Additionally, in his Cabinet Office role, Gove has sought to reduce the powers of the Electoral Commission, ceding its powers to a parliamentary committee with a Government majority – some say in response to the watchdog’s findings against Vote Leave.

Vote Leave’s illegal payment was made to BeLeave’s campaign director, Darren Grimes, who has also been in the news again recently. His role in Vote Leave’s success, via its Brexit ally BeLeave, has given him celebrity political status. He has now been appointed as a presenter for GB News, the right-wing media channel founded by Andrew Neil – who has since left the broadcaster in a very public spat about its future direction and journalistic quality.

GB News has also emerged from the populist agenda – criticising the traditional broadcasters for failing to reflect the post-Brexit settlement. Certainly, the channel continues to be supported strongly by Johnson’s Government and is used regularly by his ministers who will, no doubt, be at ease on-air with the inexperienced Grimes. Indeed, he is rather more experienced in providing support for Johnson’s political agenda than in holding him to account.

This populist agenda extends to the rule of law, and plans to sideline the European Convention on Human Rights. Populist governments have little patience for independent scrutiny by courts, Parliament or regulators – and the Vote Leave regime conforms to this rule.

Such independent regulatory scrutiny was evident in the initial actions of the former Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in seizing information from the disgraced data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica in 2018. This act was crucial in exposing Facebook’s abuses of data and changing how we think about social media and political campaigning.

However, Denham concluded a long-delayed investigation into allegations of illegal data-sharing by the Leave campaign, late in 2020, with a brief decision that she would take no further action. As a former member of the DCMS Committee who had relied on her work, I was puzzled.

When subsequent evidence emerged of additional links between Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ – which had targeted Vote Leave’s Facebook spending – she made no additional comment. Denham also failed to report, as she had promised to the committee that she would, on the activities of ‘Mainstream Network’ – an anonymous pro-Brexit website that targeted MPs in the period leading up to the 2019 General Election.

The DCMS Committee was also frustrated by Denham’s refusal to publicly release the details of a court settlement reached with Facebook following the seizure of servers from Cambridge Analytica’s offices in 2018. Only this week, further calls were made for Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives to admit when they first knew of Cambridge Analytica’s data-harvesting activities.

It has been with some astonishment, therefore, that Denham has now been appointed as a consultant to a law firm that had represented Facebook in legal proceedings against the Information Commissioner’s Office, and with whom she had negotiated. While I make no allegation of wrongdoing, this ‘revolving door’ creates the perception of a possible conflict of interest for any regulator – weakening the ideal of independence.

Denham aside, the Government’s appointments show that political patronage is being used to its fullest extent in pursuing the Prime Minister’s populist agenda – undermining the separation of powers between the judiciary, the media, the legislature and the executive.

This adds to a general distrust of British institutions which can, ultimately, only be addressed by a far-reaching constitutional review as part of a coordinated effort to rebuild confidence in a system that can no longer rely on conventions and ‘good chaps’ in government.

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