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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. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.