Mad mullahs of hard Brexit

High drama at No10

The departure of Cummings and Cain was about far more than personalities, says James Harvey

Even by the disordered standards of Boris Johnson’s government, last week in Downing Street has been more than unusually chaotic. The very public departure of two key back-room advisors (one, in the shape of Dominic Cummings, thought to be the real éminence grise at No10), combined with the frenzied media speculation and briefings from rival camps in the last few days, has only added to the comic opera. While the whole circus surrounding the removal of Cummings and Lee Cain has engendered acres of newsprint and provided the raw material of satire for years to come, do these events have any wider political significance amidst the many serious crises now piling up for Boris Johnson?

The initial reports focused on how the manoeuvres of courtiers at the court of Boris had successfully ousted Rasputin Cummings.1 In a scenario that could have come straight out of the Victorian political novels of Anthony Trollope, the emphasis was on the character weaknesses of the prime minister and the struggle amongst his advisors to control him. This personal and political power struggle within No10 was given an added frisson by the gender of the dramatis personae: three leading ladies - Carrie Symonds, Allegra Stratton and Munira Mirza - were widely reported to have blocked the appointment of Cain as chief of staff, forcing Cummings’ resignation the next day.2 The issues at stake were said to be the aggressive, blokey culture of the former ‘Vote Leave’ team that surrounded Johnson and their failure to prove competent in governing, as opposed to campaigning, during a moment of national crisis.3

The intervention of Symonds (Johnson’s partner and a former director of communications for the Tories), Stratton (Johnson’s new press secretary) and Mirza (head of the No10 Policy Unit) was variously characterised as “the rise of petticoat government” or a “softening of government” to make it more “female-friendly”.4 However, with senior Tory cabinet members, such as Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, also said to be fishing in these waters, this soap opera at the top of the government was much more than a clash of styles and cultures - or even the playing out of old-fashioned personal, political ambition.5 This is because these seemingly domestic dramas in Downing Street are closely related to much wider questions of high politics and the future direction of Johnson’s government.

Both in the immediate and the longer term the shape of the government’s policy will be determined by the two inter-related issues of Brexit and the future pattern of Anglo-American relations following the election of Joe Biden. Whilst Biden will continue to focus on the containment of China and the stabilisation of American interests in the Middle East, the defeat of Trump will produce a pivot back towards the European Union and the strengthening of that relationship as a bulwark against Russia to its east. In the broader international context, the Berlin-Paris axis will assume a much greater importance for the United States, as it attempts to maintain its hegemonic status in the face of the Chinese political and economic challenge.6

Britain will, of course, still have an important role to play as a junior political and military partner for an America trying to strengthen its leadership of ‘the free world’, but the role will be rather different than that envisaged by Johnson and his Brexiteer friends when Trump seemed assured of a second term.7 The ‘special relationship’ will, of course, endure, but it will be reconfigured in the light of this renewed emphasis on the European Union. Initial indications are that Biden will use the considerable leverage the United States has over Britain to ensure that a close and stable future relationship is negotiated between the UK and the EU.8 Consequently, Biden’s comments on protecting the Good Friday agreement and preventing a hard border “on the island of Ireland” should be seen in this light rather than as a product of any residual Irish-American hostility to Britain.9

To give Johnson his due, he soon realised that the wind had changed and that dreams of a Brexit Britain joining up with the other ‘English-speaking peoples’ in a new Anglosphere had ended with Trump’s defeat. He was quick off the mark and was one of the first world leaders (ahead of Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin anyway) to talk on the phone to the president-elect.10

EU negotiations

Alongside this American pressure for the least disruptive form of Brexit, whether on the Irish border or elsewhere, Johnson is also in something of a bind, given the current state of negotiations with the EU.11 With just over 40 days to go, important sticking points remain, and pressure is mounting on Britain to make last-minute concessions on both substantive and politically symbolic issues, such as fishing, state-aid rules and future processes of adjudication.12 With speculation mounting that a deal might be reached in the next 10 days, the possibility of a climbdown by Johnson’s government seems to be growing, albeit with some face-saving concessions by the EU on fishing quotas.13

This is where last week’s dramas impact on the likely shape and political implications of the final trade deal. As the Financial Times commented, the departure of Cummings and Cain “simultaneously eases and complicates Downing Street’s calculus”.14 On the face of it Johnson’s “purge of the Brexiteers”, as The Times described it, seems a dangerous strategy.15 It risks unsettling the more hard-line backbench Tory MPs and exposes Johnson to charges of betrayal from Nigel Farage and the far right.16 Given that Dominic Cummings is credited with devising the slogan, ‘Get Brexit done’, along with the successful Tory strategy targeted at the so-called ‘red wall’ seats, the charge that a U-turn is being prepared does seem to carry some weight.17 Certainly many EU political leaders and negotiators continue to hope that this is the case.18

However, Johnson is not only navigating between the demands of the US and the EU: he also has to pay some attention to his political base at home. In the aftermath of Cummings’ and Cain’s departure a series of ministers and commentators were pressed into service to simultaneously assure Tory supporters that Brexit was safe in their hands, whilst at the same time promising ‘blue wall’ MPs they would not be abandoned, as Johnson ‘resets’ his government.19 This coincided with a warning from Nick Timothy, a former advisor to Theresa May, that “Tory infighting was over much more than Dominic Cummings”: he suggested that the party’s “very future is at stake” if Johnson betrays the “voters who made him prime minister”.20 The voters that Timothy sees as holding the key to the Tory future are not to be found at “dinner parties in Islington and Notting Hill”, but reflect instead “provincial normality” and seek a party “dependable enough to champion the values and interests of ordinary working people”.

In their various ways Johnson, Timothy and Cummings all believe that they can appeal to that “provincial” electorate and offer strategies for maintaining and renewing the electoral coalition that brought Johnson to office last December. At the core of that electoral success was the slogan of ‘Get Brexit done’, combined with promises of ‘levelling up’ those ‘left behind’, and appeals to solidarity and national identity. However, in the face of the Covid crisis and a deepening economic depression, that coalition is now coming under severe strain. During the Brexit referendum campaign Johnson’s opportunism was a brilliant success in capturing the Conservative Party and turning it against the interests of the dominant sections of British capitalism. His charlatan showmanship and boosterism likewise continued to prove effective in winning an election against Jeremy Corbyn. But the ‘hard work of government’ during the last year has proved too much for Boris Johnson: the twin crises of Covid and Brexit have brutally exposed both Johnson’s personal weaknesses and the hollowness at the heart of his politics.

However, the high drama in Downing Street last week has revealed something much more fundamental about the strategic direction of the British state than Johnson’s feet of clay. The chaos at the heart of government revealed by the dismissal of Cummings and Cain, the divisions within the cabinet over the Brexit negotiations and the failed gamble on the enduring appeal of Trumpism all point to a serious political vacuum and an inner crisis of confidence and direction within the traditional party of British capitalism. In his buffoonish way Boris Johnson is a genuine world-historical figure - combining both tragedy and farce, as he tries unsuccessfully to grapple with the multiple political and economic crises facing his system.

  1. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/15/now-that-rasputin-cummings-has-fallen-who-will-grasp-control-of-tsar-boris.↩︎

  2. express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/1359623/politics-news-Lee-Cain-Boris-Johnson-Allegra-Stratton-Carrie-Symonds-quitting-resigning.↩︎

  3. theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/13/how-dominic-cummings-and-carrie-symonds-vie-for-boris-johnsons-attention.↩︎

  4. spectator.co.uk/article/carrie-symonds-and-the-rise-of-petticoat-government. See also dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8949727/Will-Carrie-Symonds-save-Boris-ruin-him.html.↩︎

  5. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8949727/Will-Carrie-Symonds-save-Boris-ruin-him.html.↩︎

  6. ‘Pivot back to Europe’ Weekly Worker November 12.↩︎

  7. foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again; and weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1323/pivot-back-to-europe.↩︎

  8. telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/12/what-president-joe-biden-mean-uk-brexit-special-relationship.↩︎

  9. itv.com/news/2020-10-31/what-would-a-joe-biden-presidency-mean-for-a-uk-us-post-brexit-trade-deal.↩︎

  10. independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-joe-biden-phone-call-climate-b1720556.html.↩︎

  11. msn.com/en-gb?refurl=%2fen-gb%2fnews%2fbrexit%2feu-vote-on-brexit-deal-could-be-delayed-until-28-december%2f.↩︎

  12. irishtimes.com/business/economy/time-running-out-for-trade-deal-with-uk-warns-eu-1.4410933.↩︎

  13. ft.com/content/47ad8850-255d-4127-b982-bca3a57c3966.↩︎

  14. ft.com/content/6f0fc7a4-becc-474a-9924-57d9c8419551.↩︎

  15. thetimes.co.uk/article/dominic-cummings-forced-out-in-purge-of-brexiteers-5tg2cmgqr.↩︎

  16. express.co.uk/news/politics/1359987/Brexit-news-latest-nigel-farage-boris-johnson-dominic-cummings-uk-eu-trade-talks.↩︎

  17. forbes.com/sites/alasdairlane/2020/11/14/what-dominic-cummings-departure-means-for-brexit.↩︎

  18. See, for example, deutschlandfunk.de/ruecktritt-von-johnson-berater-cummings-gut-fuer-die-briten.720.de.html. For a similar analysis, with some differences on the extent of Johnson’s commitment to his Brexit policy see irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/the-irish-times-view-on-downing-street-resignations-a-reset-in-london-1.4408924.↩︎

  19. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8951891/Boris-Johnson-plans-reset-premiership-promising-northern-Tory-MPs-not-abandon-them.html.↩︎

  20. telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/15/boris-johnson-must-not-betray-voters-made-prime-minister.↩︎