Dominic Cummings reminds Conservatives why they will struggle to beat Jeremy Corbyn

The former Vote Leave strategist’s opinion on Article 50 takes the headlines, but the rest of what he has to say is more important in the present day. 

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Dominic Cummings, the architect of Vote Leave, has reiterated his view that the government committed an act of extreme folly in triggering Article 50 when it did.

He’s right that in triggering Article 50 when she did, Theresa May decisively handed control over the Brexit process to the 27 remaining members of the European Union and that the downsides of the Article 50 process for the departing member were well-advertised in advance. As far as I am aware, no-one who wrote or thought seriously about the Article 50 process before the Leave vote, either Remain or Leave, concluded that it was not a process in which the power and freedom would be entirely asymmetric. I likened it to the negotiations at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, when a French diplomat taunted the Dutch saying the negotiations were “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”. And for the most part, the important negotiations in the Brexit process have been, from a British perspective, about us, in our home, but without us.

However, given the advantages of the Article 50 process for the remaining members of the bloc, and the incredible pressure to trigger that would have come from the right-wing press, Brexit ultras on the Tory benches and indeed from both opportunists and ideologues in the Opposition, it’s frankly implausible that any of the viable leadership candidates in the 2016 Tory leadership race would have been able to avoid triggering and I cannot see why the 27 would ever have been so inept as to allow it to be avoided. 

Cummings once likened triggering Article 50 to putting a gun to your own head and pulling the trigger, but the truth he has yet to grapple with is that allowing a departing nation to leave by a manner other than the Lisbon Treaty would be akin to seeing a man approaching you with a machete and opting to throw your gun aside to make it sporting.  Frankly, if the only way to make Brexit work was not to trigger and trigger quickly there was no real-world way to make Brexit work.

But there’s a lot in Cummings’ blog other than the whys and wherefores of the Brexit process that the Conservatives would be wise to listen to. The first is that trying to win a fourth election in series is a big ask historically speaking and doing so from the parliamentary position currently enjoyed – or should that be endured? – by the Conservative Party is an unprecedented one. For the Conservatives to say in office, the Labour Party would have to put in the worst electoral performance for an opposition in modern political history, let alone the scale of what is needed to deliver a Tory government capable of doing anything. The second is that one of the biggest promises made in the referendum and by extension by the Conservative government is to get more money into the NHS and to end the various crises plaguing it. If they don’t, the already difficult path to re-election in 2022 becomes still harder.

And the third is that the Conservative hold on power in 2017, and indeed the reason why the local elections were not as bad as they might otherwise have been in 2018, is because of the defection of a large number of former Ukip voters and a small but electorally significant chunk of Labour voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and for Theresa May in 2017. It’s not at all clear that these voters will stay the course if Brexit is bungled and it is also unclear that they will continue to reward the Conservative Party if Brexit is “resolved” by 2022.

And those are far bigger and more vital problems for the Tory party than anything to do with whether or not Theresa May should have triggered Article 50 when she did.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.