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Russia's revenge: why the west will never understand the Kremlin

The events in Ukraine are Putin’s payback for what he considers to be a quarter-century of humiliation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. .

Great patriots: pro-Moscow protestors wave Russian flags from the Lenin monument in Donetsk city centre, Ukraine, 9 March

With Crimea’s illegal referendum and the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, a new cold war is starting. That does not just mean diplomatic frostiness; it will mean a tense stand-off, sanctions, a military build-up and quite possibly Moscow’s incorporation of further land, including the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. At every moment there will lurk the threat of cold war turning into hot war. The Kremlin is well aware how high it has ratcheted up the stakes: state television’s chief propagandist chose referendum night in Crimea to remind the world that Russia is capable of turning America into “radioactive ash”.

The immediate question is how Ukraine – and then the west – reacts to Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Sanctions might hurt, but there is no hope at all that they will force Vladimir Putin to reverse the process. And, short of threatening military retaliation (precisely the thing that could trigger a major war), I cannot see what would deter Russia from responding to manufactured calls from Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine for “help”. On 18 March Putin denied any desire to dismember Ukraine. But he has already authorised the use of force if need be, and between them Ukraine’s far-right nutters and Russia’s provocateurs could easily create the “threat to Russian lives” that would provide the pretext for intervention.

Thus would Europe’s borders be redrawn, and along them a new iron curtain would descend. So much for the hopes we had in those days of revolution from 1989 to 1991, when it seemed we’d all be members of a peaceful, united, de-ideologised continent.

Historians will pore over the origins of this new conflict and see only confusion, lies, misunderstandings and puffed-up egos blundering towards catastrophe. I have long believed that Putin, surrounded by myopic and conspiratorial advisers, does not understand the west, and that the west, so sure of its own righteousness and “victory” in the last cold war, hasn’t even tried to treat Russia with the respect it thought it deserved after throwing off the shackles of communism. Now we are reaping the fruits.

Putin’s “political technologists” have been priming the canvas zealously for the bloody painting being daubed across the continent of Europe. If I were a typical Russian television viewer, with no interest in chasing down alternative reportage, I would be quaking at the thought of what is said to be happening right now in brotherly Ukraine. It’s like the Great Patriotic War all over again; jackboots, brownshirts, swastikas, truncheons; they’re banning the use of Russian; they just showed some millionaire fascist on a stage in the Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv, the cauldron of the revolution) demanding that Russians be “shot in the head” – and the crowd applauded; “death squads” are being set up, the newsreader said; my sister lives in Donetsk, and my cousin in Kharkov – they’re going to be murdered; and now two people have been shot by fascist thugs . . . you see, it’s starting . . .

Even by the standards of Putin-era television (indeed, even by the standards of Soviet television) the propaganda is jaw-dropping. You have to slap yourself in the face to recall that just a month ago we were watching the opening ceremony of the Sochi winter Olympics – a magical evocation of everything that made Russia great: scientists and writers, composers and cosmonauts, poets and ballet dancers, philosophers and artists. This is the European, cultured Russia we aspire to be, they were saying. Even the Olympic ring that failed to open was somehow endearing, a reminder of what many westerners love about Russia – its maddening foibles, its pretensions to grandeur that often fall just a little short. The producers knew it and made fun of the lapse in the closing ceremony. You see: we Russians can laugh at ourselves. We are just like you.

And then, it turns out, they’re not.

Or are they? Is it we in the west who can’t bear the thought of them being like us? Do we not prefer our stereotypes? Bears, surly Siberians, cold unsmiling Muscovites, gangsters and spies, aggressive communists hell-bent on restoring their evil empire. Much more comfortable. Good to have someone to hate: it makes us feel more virtuous. Did the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not love being able to say to the Russians: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext”?

Nixon and Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I in Moscow, 26 May 1972

I sometimes think the west understood the Soviet Union better than it does today’s Russia. For one thing, it was simpler, more black-and-white. But we also had formidable Kremlinologists who knew how to read the signs hidden behind the propaganda. Maybe our foreign ministries today are too obsessed with terrorism and Islam, while Russian studies are dominated (at least in the press and chancelleries, though less so in universities) by experts who, by and large, have a remarkably simplistic view of what is going on. Analysis of Putin’s motives generally amounts to nothing more sophisticated than “he’s a KGB thug, an authoritarian kleptocrat surrounded by corrupt oligarchs, determined to restore the Soviet Union and destroy the west”. Much of that is true! Yet it is only part of the story, and merely describes how he is, but not why, and does not consider whether we inadvertently created a bogeyman.

The Russian view of the west (particularly the one put out for public consumption) is equally flawed, driven by conspiracy theories and mistrust of America’s motives and aspirations. But at least Russia has master diplomats such as the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who knows about the west not from hearsay but because he has studied nothing else for more than 30 years.

When the history of the new cold war comes to be written, its subtitle should be the immortal words of the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton: “I didn’t pick that up. That’s interesting. Gosh!”

This was her gormless response, in a now notorious leaked phone call, to the Estonian foreign minister, Urmas Paet, when he informed her that opposition gunmen – not President Yanukovych’s snipers – might have been responsible for the mass killings on the Maidan in Kyiv that were the catalyst for the Ukrainian revolution. If this were true, it would be sensational, and have a big impact on the west’s view of the new Ukrainian government.

Yet Paet’s assertion turns out to have been based on a misunderstanding of something possibly said by someone who was in no position to make such a judgement in any case. The minister said he had been given the information by “Olga”, a doctor who had been treating victims. Baroness Gosh had also met Olga, but not been given this incendiary news. Why had they both talked to her? Presumably because the photogenic, English-speaking doctor had appeared on CNN and the BBC, describing the tragedy she was dealing with, and suddenly found herself an important source for top-level diplomats. How often I have seen this happen in my years as a correspondent working in foreign parts: diplomats and journalists swarming around the same little coterie of “sources”, almost always several steps removed from the real decision-making and intelligence.

Poor Olga – Dr Bogomolets – is no forensic scientist, and perhaps something got lost in her (presumably English) conversation with the Estonian. Paet claimed she had said policemen and protesters had been killed by the same snipers: “She can say that it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened. There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, it was somebody from the new coalition.” Dr Bogomolets later denied that she had told him anything of the sort; she hadn’t even seen a shot policeman.

Such was the level of “intelligence” being shared by western leaders as they shuttled in and out of Ukraine, taking decisions apparently way beyond their competence.

Senator John McCain swept in to town and shared a stage with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party – a man who in many western countries would be a pariah, a politician from the same stable as Jörg Haider, whose election victory in Austria in 1999 caused the EU to impose sanctions against his government. Did McCain know who he was wining and dining with? Did he care? Or is the only qualification for receiving unconditional US support a visceral hatred of Russia?

The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland distributed cookies to the Maidan protesters, and discussed with her ambassador which opposition leader should become prime minister, as though she were viceroy of Ukraine. “I don’t think Klitsh should go into government,” she said. “I think Yats is the guy with the economic experience, the governing experience.”

That would be the former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose names are rather difficult to pronounce. But she also knew the extremist Tyahnybok, and thought that Yats “needs to be talking to him four times a week, you know”. All this was based on just what knowledge, one wonders. Does this arrogant American have more than the most superficial knowledge of the history and society and needs of the country she is moulding to America’s liking?

The west’s understanding is woeful. How often was the benighted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, described as Putin’s great friend or poodle? Like hell he was. The price he extracted from Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea in April 2010 (between $40bn and $45bn) made Putin apoplectic. “I would be willing to eat Yanukovych and his prime minister for that sort of money,” he said. “No military base in the world costs that much!” When Yanukovych fled from the Maidan protesters in February this year and turned up in Russia, Putin didn’t even deign to meet him.

How dim must the EU’s foreign policy experts be if they were surprised that Putin trumped their “association agreement” with cheaper gas and a loan of $15bn? The Ukrainian economy is in collapse – of course Yanukovych took the money. The EU spends hundreds of billions to bail out banks, but could not help Ukraine become a democracy.

Our governments appear to be utterly inadequate in foreign policy. Our revolving politicians, one day in education, the next in finance, then at the Foreign Office, may know all about their domestic politics, but abroad (and especially regarding Russia) they are like Columbus setting out to discover India.

Of course getting Russia right is difficult. I count myself pretty well versed in Russian affairs; it’s over 40 years since I started studying the language, the culture, the people, the politics. I have lived there more than ten years in all, under Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. But I know perfectly well I am an ignoramus compared to Russians. I don’t understand the humour; I could never get the cultural references buried in satirical programmes such as Kukly, the Spitting Image equivalent that Putin banned. It doesn’t stop me pontificating, but knowing how little I understand after all those years, I am horrified to see our flat-footed “diplomats” taking decisions so ill-informed and insensitive that they may be impelling the world towards catastrophe.

But it has always been thus, or at least thus since the collapse of the USSR. No one wants to hear this at a time when Putin is marching his troops into a neighbouring country, but it is perfectly feasible to argue he would not be doing so – that he might not have become Russia’s leader in the first place – if the west had not been so inept in its handling of the collapse of communism.

The first post-Soviet decade – the Yeltsin years – were a disaster for Russia. Americans applauded Boris Yeltsin. He was the kind of Russian we like – “burly” not surly, an iconoclast determined to root out communism, welcoming to western capitalists, comically drunken and impotent to oppose western foreign policies. That the Russian masses were falling into poverty and insecurity was dismissed as a passing phase: it would all come right in the end. That a handful of oligarchs swiped most of the state’s assets and Russia began to resemble a mafia state was no big deal. The oligarchs’ money and TV stations may have been used to rig the re-election of a catastrophically unpopular Yeltsin, but at least it made sure the commies didn’t get back in.

I remember picking my way, as a BBC reporter at the time, through streets full of middle-class people selling off their belongings, to report on Moscow’s first Rolls-Royce dealership. Unsurprisingly, most Russians came to associate capitalism and democracy with financial ruin and humiliation. Some 25 million of them even found themselves outside Russia, living in the new independent former republics of the USSR (not all of which treated their guests with much sensitivity).

The west could have pumped billions into Russia, instead of imagining that freewheeling capitalism was all that was required. It seems our governments had not the faintest idea of how deep the crisis of Russia’s economy was after 70 years of communism, nor of how dangerous the popular mood would become if there was no “cushion”: nothing to save people from poverty, and not even a veneer of respect for the destroyed Russia as a world power.

And that is how we got Putin – brought to power, ironically, by Yeltsin’s own family and advisers. Even they understood that the country needed a jolt. Had Russia not been in such a mess, had “western” policies not been so discredited, the Russians might have chosen a democrat instead.

Putin came to the scene a political ingénu. Today he looks intransigent and single-minded, but at that time he was so inexperienced he opened himself up to all kinds of advice. He surrounded himself with western-oriented, radical reformers. He wooed western leaders, longing to be liked, and mused about joining Nato one day. He offered real help to George W Bush in his war in Afghanistan.

It was just at this point that everything went wrong. Putin was still, at heart, a KGB man, schooled in deception and befuddled by his Soviet vision of the world. He never understood what democracy meant, and began closing down critical media and gathering in power around himself and his quickly appointed clique of KGB comrades. Naturally, the west took fright and began to build up its defences against Russia – even though, at this point, Putin had shown no ill intentions towards other countries whatsoever.

George W Bush’s understanding of Russia was, I guess, about as good as his understanding of Iraq: international affairs reduced to a few soundbites. Ignoring Russia’s protestations, he pressed on with a missile shield, allegedly to defend against Iranian rockets but in fact positioned in such a way that the Kremlin saw its own strategic defences weakened.

What the point of this was, God only knows. The system doesn’t work anyway (it’s like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, from hundreds of miles away) and in any case Iran has since all but given up its nuclear arms pretensions.

Russia desperately wanted to be part of Europe’s security architecture, but Nato expanded eastwards towards Russia’s frontiers, thus making Russia, ironically, more of a threat than it would otherwise have been. In return, the Russians started building up their own defences. In 2008 Nato promised eventual membership to Ukraine, exactly what Putin now fears will happen as the country turns westwards.

Yet what if the west, instead, had calculated that Putin could have been persuaded to rein in his authoritarian tendencies in exchange for proper clout in world affairs? Cleverer diplomats might have persuaded him. The result could have been the kind of Russia we wanted – democratic, peaceful, not threatening . . . and therefore a welcome asset at the global table.

By encircling Russia and undermining its security (which Nato expansion and the missile shield undoubtedly did), we created the enemy we didn’t want. Halfway through his second term, Putin decided that America did not want to share power in the world. And he was right – not with a man who was locking up his critics and rigging elections. Both sides were sliding into a spiral of mutual mistrust and hatred. For Putin, the battle for acceptance was lost and it was no longer worth “improving” himself to regain it. He became the menacing, vengeful warlord we now have to deal with. Gosh!

Bill Clinton’s old Russia hand Strobe Talbott describes the upheaval in Ukraine today as Putin’s payback to the west, particularly the United States, for what he “sees as a quarter-century of disrespect, humiliation and diplomatic bullying”. In his speech on 18 March, Putin resentfully listed all the grievances that have built up over the years, concluding that the centuries-old policy of “containing Russia” continues.

To be clear, what Putin has done in annexing part of Ukraine is unacceptable and should be punished, though goodness knows how this can be achieved without precipitating war. We can probably never have a sane relationship with Russia until Putin and his henchmen are gone.

Yet perhaps, one day, the Russia we saw at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony will be not just a figment of the imagination, but something we can all celebrate and welcome into our hearts. However, our next generation of western Kremlinologists should bear this in mind: whoever is in the Kremlin – even the most likeable, “western” leader you can imagine – will have Russia’s interests at heart, not ours. They will want a say in the world commensurate with Russia’s size and nuclear status, they will care about Russians living abroad, and they will resist anything they see as a threat to their security. 

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent. His book “The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia” is available in an updated paperback version (I B Tauris, £12.99)

 

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad