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29 July 2021

Dominic Cummings’s solution to the Irish border problem would have been disastrous

My exchange with the former No 10 aide showed his recklessness – but his thinking still influences the government.

By David Gauke

When I started writing regularly for the New Statesman, I made a promise to myself that I would not write about Brexit every week. Yes, there is a lot to say; it remains important and it gets the clicks. But I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony so I vowed to mix it up a bit and write about Brexit sparingly. By which I meant no more than once a fortnight.

Last week, I had intended to write about social care but, after the extraordinary interview Dominic Cummings gave to Laura Kuenssberg, I could not resist writing about that. This week, I had intended to write about social care but after further Brexit revelations from Cummings, I cannot resist writing about Brexit again. Social care, as often happens, is put back for another day.

Last Friday, Cummings was arguing on Twitter that the Northern Ireland protocol was opaque when it came to the requirements for checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. He eventually acknowledged that some checks were required under the protocol but put the blame for those checks on those of us who had supported legislation that prevented a no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019.

This was a predictable position. But I was genuinely interested in how people like Cummings hoped to address the Irish trilemma. Brexit required a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or one could not have regulatory and customs divergence. What was the solution?  And was it a solution that could have led to a trade deal in the autumn of 2019, assuming parliament had not intervened? 

[see also: How Dominic Cummings always makes things worse]

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So I asked him and, somewhat to my surprise, he responded. It was not a Twitter spat; I asked straight questions designed to understand his thinking, and he provided clear answers. Not, in my view, attractive answers, but they are interesting and important nonetheless.

Cummings’s view is that had Vote Leave been running things from June 2016, the Irish border would have been “a minor issue in the negotiations” because the UK would have had more leverage: it wouldn’t have weakened its hand by triggering Article 50 and it would have been clear that it would act unilaterally if anyone “dicked around babbling about [the Good Friday Agreement] etc”.  “We’d have refused ANY checks anywhere & Ireland [would] not have dared build anything either,” he tweeted. This would have left the EU with the problem of how it protected the single market, he argues, suggesting that Macron would have insisted on checks between the Republic of Ireland and the single market or that Macron was bluffing and the EU might have lived with no checks at all. 

Had the Benn Act not passed in autumn 2019, the approach to border checks would have been essentially much the same. “We’d have refused all checks/building anything either in Irish Sea or on land border, & seen how the cards fell,” he said.  As for the chances of reaching a deal in those circumstances, his answer was “God knows”, which suggests that a deal was not his priority.

Now that we have the Cummings “solution” to the Irish trilemma, what should we make of it? First, the implication that the Republic of Ireland – whose people did not have a vote in the 2016 EU referendum – might be forced to leave the single market because of a decision made by the UK would go down extraordinarily badly with both the Republic and moderate nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland. It is easy to see how this could lead to a border poll in Northern Ireland in short order.

Second, it would severely damage UK/US relations, especially with President “I’m Irish” Biden. Even with Donald Trump in power, a trade deal would not get through Congress (not a concern for Cummings but a priority for many Brexiteers).

Third, if we are not checking our borders, we would be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules and an impediment to any future trade deals with anyone.

Fourth, it is surely inconceivable that the EU would enter into a zero tariffs, zero quotas trade deal with a third country which refused to address the subject of border checks (this is not a question of leverage but logic). This would have had a devastating impact on many sectors of our economy. His answers confirm that it was necessary for parliament to step in to prevent no deal (which is, I suppose, reassuring for those of us who sacrificed our parliamentary careers in the process).

Given the influence Cummings had, it is of historic interest to learn of his approach. This approach also remains important. Just this week, the UK dismissed the EU’s proposals on how to reform the Northern Ireland protocol and David Frost, the Brexit minister, demanded that it be renegotiated, setting up a showdown in September. This is the same David Frost who worked side by side Cummings in autumn 2019 and who, it was reported, considered his position when the Prime Minister’s senior aide departed Downing Street in November 2020. Frost is Cummings’s man.

Dominic Cummings’s thinking in this area may have been unrealistic, reckless and (at least in Irish eyes) offensive, and his relationship with the Prime Minister destroyed. But it is credible to believe that his disdainful thinking on the Northern Ireland issue remains influential. We may find out in the autumn.

[see also: Timothy Gowers: The man who changed Dominic Cummings’s mind]