It was Dominic Cummings’s contempt for Boris Johnson, and the Prime Minister’s blithe disregard for the Queen’s health, that made headlines following his interview with Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, this week. Personally, I found what he had to say about the 2016 Brexit referendum to be equally shocking.
First, Cummings admitted he had doubts about Brexit. Asked if he still thought leaving the European Union was a good idea, the chief architect of Vote Leave’s victory replied: “No one on earth knows what the answer is… Anyone who says they are sure about questions like that has a screw loose whether on the Remain side or our side. One of the reasons why we won is precisely because in Vote Leave we didn’t think that we were definitely right and Remainers are all idiots or traitors or anything else. We never thought like that and still don’t and I don’t now. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say ‘Brexit was a mistake and history will prove that’.”
That professed tolerance and understanding will come as news to all those Tory Remainer MPs who were expelled from the parliamentary party, and to the legions of Remain supporters who have been accused time and again over the past four years of treachery, lacking patriotism and being “doomsters and gloomsters”.
And to know that the man without whom the Brexiteers would never have won was not totally committed to the cause will offer very cold comfort to all the exporters, fishermen, farmers, hauliers, musicians, artists, small businesses, students, hoteliers, restaurateurs, British residents in the EU and EU residents in Britain who are suffering – many grievously – because of Brexit.
Cummings capped that by all but admitting – with a smirk on his face – that the referendum was won on false pretences.
Kuenssberg challenged him on Vote Leave’s central promise – a £350m Brexit dividend for the NHS. “You knew very well then, and you know very well now, that that figure didn’t include the so-called rebate, the money that the UK got to keep,” she said. “Yes,” Cummings replied.
He explained that he used the figure to focus the debate on the “balance sheet” of Britain’s EU membership, and to “drive the Remain campaign and the people running it crazy”.
“So it was a deliberate trap for the other side?” asked Kuenssberg.
“Yeah,” Cummings replied.
“But wasn’t the important thing what you were saying to the public?,” Kuenssberg said.
“No, I don’t think so,” Cummings replied.
“It wasn’t important what you were saying to the public!” Kuenssberg exclaimed, before observing: “I can see today you are almost laughing thinking about it.”
Pause there. To cite the UK’s £350m weekly contribution to the EU without mentioning that it received roughly £100m back through the rebate is one hell of a deception. It’s a bit like giving a shopkeeper a pound for a 75p Mars Bar and omitting to mention the 25p change when asked how much you paid.
And by Cummings’s own admission, that £350m promise, more than anything else, determined the result of the most momentous UK vote for decades. In a binary referendum on the horribly complex issue of Britain’s EU membership, a campaign that was supposed to be championing ordinary people against a self-serving establishment elite deliberately deceived them. At a moment of supreme national importance it played a deeply cynical political game. How patriotic was that?
Kuenssberg then alluded to Vote Leave’s incendiary claim that Turkey was close to securing EU membership – a claim that raised the spectre of 80 million Muslims, and some terrorists to boot, heading for Britain. Accused of “distortions of reality”, Cummings revealed the staggering scale of his cynicism and dishonesty by replying: “We didn’t say it was about to join. We said it was in the process of joining.”
The incontrovertible facts are these. In 2016, Turkey had first applied to join the EU 29 years earlier – in 1987. By the time of the referendum it had successfully negotiated just one of the 35 “chapters” required for membership. Even before its recent lurch towards authoritarianism, there was not the remotest possibility of Turkey joining the EU for decades to come, and Cummings knew that perfectly well.
Finally, Kuenssberg challenged him on the unlawful proroguing of parliament, the purging of Tory rebels, the deliberate inflaming of popular anger and other “extreme measures” that he and Johnson used to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit in late 2019 – measures that, she said, “ushered in an era of division in this country that we hadn’t seen for decades”.
Cummings acknowledged using “provocative” tactics designed to “disorientate people on the other side”, but insisted: “That’s politics.”
He went on: “The people I blame are the people who tried to overturn, who didn’t accept the result of the referendum.” He failed to mention that his Vote Leave campaign had deliberately omitted to spell out what sort of Brexit it wanted – hard or soft, Australian, Canadian or Norwegian. It certainly never mentioned the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. Parliament had every right, indeed a solemn duty, to fight for the least damaging Brexit, and to seek to prevent a disastrous no-deal outcome.
So there we have it, straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The referendum was won on false pretences by an utterly unscrupulous campaign whose mastermind played profoundly cynical political games and was not even sure that Brexit was good for Britain. Parliament’s opposition was then broken through the use of extreme measures that Cummings dismisses as mere “politics”, but any decent, right-minded person would consider unconscionable.
Cummings may find all that amusing, but as the immense cost of Brexit to the UK’s cohesion, economy and international standing becomes steadily more apparent, is it any wonder that millions of furious Remainers are still quite unable to forgive and forget?