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18 September 2017

Vote Leave can’t hide their responsibility for the Brexit mess

Dominic Cummings has become the latest Vote Leave official to try to muddy his part in the unfolding disaster. 

By Stephen Bush

Dominic Cummings, formerly a special advisor to Michael Gove and one of the key backroom figures in Vote Leave, has made one of his periodic interventions in the post-referendum debate with a very long Twitter thread – containing a link to an even longer article.

The headline-grabbing line – though he has said it before – is that in triggering Article 50 when it did, the government committed a “historic and unforgivable blunder”, which has jeopardised the country’s chances of making Brexit a success. Squarely in his sights for the blunder: David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and Britain’s top civil servant, Jeremy Heywood. Is he right?

Particularly attentive readers will know that I have been banging on about this precise point at considerable length both before and after Article 50 was triggered. (Unlucky followers of my Twitter feed will be even more sick of this point.)

And in Cummings’ defence, so was he. In one particularly colourful remark, before the referendum, he described using Article 50 to facilitate leaving as putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. Vote Leave’s campaign literature advised against immediately triggering Article 50, so he has half a point. But crucially, only half.

Why only half? Well, here follows a list of people and publications who called on the government not to use Article 50 to facilitate its exit from the European Union: the Financial Times, the New Statesman, the blogger FlipChartRick, the lawyer Jolyon Maugham, and Cummings himself.

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You’ll note something that is immediately missing from that list: any senior politicians who backed a Leave vote, including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Labour’s Gisela Stuart, the three frontline figures who did more than almost anyone else to ensure that Britain voted to leave the European Union.

In neither of their short-lived leadership bids did Johnson or Gove use their platforms to argue against triggering Article 50, nor did either of them use their considerable clout in the pro-Brexit press to do the same. Stuart, one of Labour’s most impressive operators, who helped negotiate and write Article 50, and therefore knew full well that the mechanism was designed to disadvantage the departing nation and hand maximum leverage to the remaining members of the European Union, not only said nothing to discourage it but like Johnson and Gove actively voted to trigger on May’s timetable.

May has made a series of unforced errors in the Brexit talks, but as far as the disastrous decision to trigger Article 50 when she did goes, politically, she had no other choice but to trigger early due the demands of Brexiteers on her own backbenches.

If you want to be generous you can say that this only occurred because some Remainers were talking about an indefinite transition or overturning the referendum result which meant that Brexiteer MPs were less cautious than they should have been. But you can’t absolve Vote Leave on this metric, as anyone who knows anything about politics or human nature should have expected that at least some Remainers would behave in that way and that at least some Brexiteers would respond in that way and they did nothing, nothing at all, after the campaign to prevent it from happening.

Cummings is right that triggering Article 50 was a historic and unforgivable blunder that has made the chances of a bad Brexit considerably more likely. But he’s wrong to say that the architects of Vote Leave can escape at least a share of the blame.