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What the Vote Leave chief honestly thinks about Brexit

Dom Cummings has let rip for the first time since the referendum. 

Johnson and Gove were the prophets of Brexit, but it was Dom Cummings who wrote the scripture. The  Vote Leave campaign director took Eurosceptic MPs who had for decades opined the same obscure views on sovereignty - the concept still means little to most in SW1, never mind outside of it - and co-opted them into a disciplined and data-driven campaign.

He encouraged them to focus on three things: immigration, the NHS and the emotional vocabulary of control. And it worked.

Consequently, the Vote Leave club still adore him. One staffer describes him as “a great man, a genius, truly the most important person in the EU referendum”. And although Cummings regards almost all Conservative MPs as “clowns”, they regard his achievements with a begrudging respect: an unhinged and aggressive figure, but also a remarkably intelligent and incisive campaigner. 

Yet despite winning the biggest mandate in British political history, Cummings’ views on post-referendum Britain are little known. This is mostly his own doing. Unlike Matthew Elliott, the Vote Leave CEO, who has spent his time since the referendum touring TV studios and generally bigging up his own significance, Cummings has been coy. 

But now, as the Tory government begins to consider Brexit in earnest, he has returned to Twitter for the first time since the referendum. And under the username @odysseanproject, he has offered his thoughts in typically unapologetic fashion. Here is what he thinks:

1. It’s a “delusion” to say Britain voted for sovereignty 

Cummings knew well before the referendum that freedom of movement would be voters’ number one concern.  He spent years researching public attitudes towards the EU and was writing about "regaining control of migration" and introducing an "Australian point system" as early as June 2014.  These ideas, tested then on voters in Essex, London and Warwickshire, worked themselves almost without interruption onto the Vote Leave playbook. 

Now he rebukes Brexiteers who say the result had nothing to do with migration and Remoaners who say it was the only factor. "It wasn’t ‘all about immigration’ AND immigration wasn’t a minor / subsidiary issue. Both wrong, truth subtler."

Immigration was the core issue, but it couldn’t have won the referendum alone. He argues it had to be “balanced” with #TakeBackControl, £350m and the NHS. This suggests the eventual result was neither an anti-immigrant populist uprising, nor an attempt to liberate Britain as a sovereign nation from the EU’s clutches. According to Cummings, it was probably somewhere in between. 

2. Nigel Farage almost lost the EU referendum 

Cummings describes Farage as a “vain shallow egomaniac” who consistently undermined the campaign.  

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Farage helped hoover up working class votes, especially in Labour’s heartlands, Cummings says he and “his embarrassing cabal” were simply a turnoff on the doorstep. “In focus group after focus group,” he continues, “ppl said ‘I want to leave but I don’t want to vote for that tit Farage’”. 

He recounts how Farage insisted upon featuring in the main debates - “me me me me me” - but says if he had been allowed to officially represent the Leave campaign, Remain would have won by 70 per cent.  

3.  Theresa May should ditch the net migration target

The biggest and most complex question facing politicians post-Brexit is how Britain reduces net migration to so-called “sustainable levels” (shorthand for 100,000 or less). 

But according to Cummings, migration policy should be easy: “ditch” net migration.  He says it’s a "crap metric" which reflects Osborne and Cameron’s poor understanding of public psychology. 

Cummings instead proposes restrictions on unskilled labour, “tough rules” on criminals and increased access for highly-skilled migrants. The British public would overwhelmingly back such proposals, he says, and leave Labour “high and dry” politically. If it’s not there already...

4. We should shut down the Department for International Development

Cummings is not the only person to have called for Dfid to be closed - he is joined by its current secretary, Priti Patel - but his reasons haven’t anything to do with "pulling up the drawbridge" in post-Brexit Britain. 

He is an advocate of effective altruism, a philosophy defined by the desire to improve the world in the most efficient way possible, and says Dfid’s aid money would be spent better elsewhere.

His argument is: mothball the department and give most of the money to already effective organisations and charities. Keep behind a portion for high risk, high impact projects, following the model of DARPA (the US military research organisation).  

5. None of his aims for post-Brexit Britain are going to be realised 

Cummings’ expounds his political philosophy in Some thoughts on education and political priorities, a dense and ironically-named 250 page essay.  

Its thrust is as follows: the world is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to predict; our present array of political institutions is unfit to respond to the problems thrown up by that complexity; in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, we need to be trained in risk analysis, and scientific and mathematical modelling, invest in science and technology, and also restructure our entire political and educational landscape in the process - including withdrawing from the EU. 

This last tweet is fascinating because Cummings acknowledges the changes he envisages aren’t going to take place post-Brexit. After two decades of Eurosceptic activism - starting as chair of the No Campaign, which fought against Britain’s membership of the euro, and ending with this - he is stolidly self-aware.

The Britain he wants isn’t the statist, bureaucratic, anti-immigration Britain being mapped out by Theresa May. But history may conclude that he helped deliver it. 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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