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16 November 2020

Dominic Cummings’ departure won’t make a difference to the Brexit negotiations

Positive news on a Covid-19 vaccine is more likely to change the outcome of the EU trade talks than Cummings’ resignation.

By Stephen Bush

Is a deal in sight over Brexit? Time is running out for a deal to be done before the end of the transition period on 31 December. 

The British government has already both made major concessions and won some of its own, but the biggest political stumbling block that remains is over fishing. You can see how a deal can be reached if Boris Johnson is minded to make one  but the politics of it have been complicated by Dominic Cummings’ exit.

[see also: Why Dominic Cummings failed on his own terms]

Despite the fact that Cummings, not Johnson, was the one who first urged the Brexiteers to back Theresa May’s deal, he has managed to acquire a reputation in some quarters as the real guarantor of toughness on Brexit. The reality is that if anything, it’s Johnson himself who is the least inclined to back a deal, and that the exit of one set of pro-Leave backroom boys in favour of a more gender-balanced group of pro-Leave backroom people doesn’t change that. 

[see also: How a giant chicken shows our notion of class is hopelessly outdated]

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What may have changed the calculation is the good news on a vaccine development and the very real possibility that a return to something a lot more like normal life may be round the corner. The advantage of the coronavirus recession is that, from a British diplomatic perspective, you can see how the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit can be felt or spun as the consequences of coronavirus rather than anything else.

But as we saw over the summer, the economy can recover from lockdown fairly quickly even with social distancing in place. So, if this latest lockdown does end, as promised, on 2 December, the economic hit of no-deal Brexit may not feel like the latest in a series of unfortunate events, but a bump in the road just when the country feels on the up-and-up again. 

This is the argument that is being made by the government’s two economic departments  the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). And it is this changed understanding of the economic hangovers of the novel coronavirus that could alter the prospects for a Brexit deal, more than any change of personnel in Downing Street or the White House.