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25 November 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 10:59am

Dominic Cummings was no iconoclast, but he understood the Tories’ Europe problem

The former chief aide to Boris Johnson saw through David Cameron's attempts in 2015 to hide the precarious nature of Britain's EU membership. 

By Helen Thompson

For all his grandiose ambitions, Dominic Cummings’s services to the Conservatives were of a rather traditional kind. Historically, the Tories have orchestrated a cross-class coalition, defended English interests in the Union, and used foreign policy to try to appear competent in government.

Although David Cameron seemed to rescue the party from the political wilderness, he did anything but reinvent it in ways that reconstructed these strengths. His “modernisation” project amounted to repudiating working-class conservatism after Tony Blair had shifted Labour’s appeal away from its working-class base. Cameron’s claim, on becoming leader, that the Conservatives could now be trusted not to “bang on about Europe” was undermined when he went into the 2010 general election with an immigration reduction target that could not be implemented inside the EU, and one commitment – a promise to return powers from Brussels – subject to veto by any other EU state. Predictably, events forced a reckoning with these realities. Cameron assumed there was a way out so long as people like him were asking Tory voters to remain in the EU, and the party’s old “headbangers” and the new Ukip “fruitcakes and closet racists” were campaigning for the other side. That his own attitude towards the post-Lisbon Treaty EU substantively put him on the opposite side of the argument was supposed to fly under the radar.

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Cummings’s elementary insight was to see that scarcely anybody in the parliamentary Tory Party was taking the actual EU seriously. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 and the eurozone crisis had destabilised British membership, and the Cameron government required a serious strategy to deal with it. It also needed to recognise that in the 2015 general election the immediate dangers the EU posed to the Conservatives were only hidden because the party took the opportunity to exploit the simultaneous danger that the SNP posed to the Union.

The Cummings obsessed with rationality and tempted by the prospect of an industrial space age might have believed that Britain must be transformed into the world’s leading science power to justify Brexit. But Cummings the historically minded realist saw Brexit as a defensive move to eliminate Ukip, or anything resembling it, and to prevent the lack of popular consent for freedom of movement from metastasising into across-the-board economic nationalism.

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[see also: What Dominic Cummings’ departure has meant for Boris Johnson]

Here, Cummings’s own understanding of the Leave campaign as an outsider “hacking” of the political system was always exaggerated. A Leave victory was not, as he wrote in his blog, a “low probability proposition”. After Cameron chose to demonstrate in the renegotiations of 2015/16 that the single market’s constitutional rules were unmovable for any British government, Remain’s defeat was a decent probability outcome. By the 2015 election, Labour under Ed Miliband had joined the Conservatives in taking a stance on immigration incompatible with EU rules. This showed that democratic consent was at breaking point long before Cummings became Vote Leave’s campaign director.

When, in the summer of 2019, Cummings entered Downing Street with Boris Johnson, the Conservatives had squandered the opportunity obtained in 2016 to squash a rival to its right. Again, Cummings’s apparent gung-ho radicalism in proroguing parliament in August 2019 masked what can just as well be construed as medium-term prudence. The party won only 9 per cent of votes in the European Parliament election in May that year, and on 1 August the new Brexit Party’s vote share handed the Liberal Democrats a by-election win in the Welsh, Leave-voting constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. The Conservatives were left staring into an abyss.

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[see also: How will Labour vote on a possible Brexit deal?]

There was one critical issue in autumn 2019: would a cross-party group of parliamentarians be able to stop Brexit? Their success would have guaranteed Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party a long life. Anyone tasked with finding a way for the Conservative Party to survive had to work out how to hold a general election on the fundamental issue of whether voters could decide if Britain should leave the EU (hence the slogan “Get Brexit Done”). Of course, Cummings’s tactics were high-risk and intrinsically unpalatable. But, by making common cause with those who wanted Brexit stopped, the 21 Conservative MPs who lost the whip in September 2019 were the faction risking an annihilation of the party.

Having become both a liability and a scapegoat, Cummings should not now be necessary to the Conservatives. The very nature of the party’s success last December makes it obvious what it needs to do to prosper. But recent Tory leaders’ tendency to ignore obvious obstacles seems to die hard, and Johnson appears to be reorienting the party towards another supposed “modernisation”, as if Brexit, once completed, vindicates the rest of the Cameron project, with a little repackaging for millennials.

Regardless of what Cummings said or did this year, the health emergency, the Union’s precariousness and climate change would all threaten to damage the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. They must retain voters whose material livelihoods have been wrecked by the lockdowns – who will resent any approach to the Union crisis that offers more asymmetric concessions to Scotland, and may suspect that anti-car policies are designed to try to decontaminate the party from association with people like them. If the Conservatives do not compete to win these voters’ allegiance, a new party will. Once again, what starts as a complacent Conservative leader preferring a brand narrative over policies of substance risks becoming the whole polity’s crisis. 

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump