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Dominic Cummings, die-hard Brexiteer and UK sovereignty fetishist, is now part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s problems — and no longer a solution. Like all of Britain, most of Europe has been agog watching the Dominic Cummings affair. It was even the strongest trending topic on Twitter in France.

The spectacle of a British prime minister having to do Downing Street statements on two consecutive days to defend an aide who usually never speaks to the press or offers TV interviews has been gripping political drama.

Dialogue of the deaf

In Brussels, the entire Brexit negotiating machine has been stuck in neutral, with no movement for some weeks.

For their part, the EU heads of government understandably feel that they cannot re-write their rule book just to create a special status for Britain.

The British government, in contrast, is digging in, believing that it has a double mandate from both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election to insist on a new relationship with other European nations.

In addition, the Johnson government seeks trade deals across the globe, independent of EU laws or treaty obligations. It is a dialogue of the deaf for the time being.

Administrative nightmare

Meanwhile, UK business does not know what plans to make. Trucking companies face hundreds of millions of new customs forms to fill in. Just-in-time deliveries? More like, just kidding.

The UK’s creative industries, from advertising to video, employ 2 million workers and produce £30bn in exports of services, are also completely unsure what market access they will have — or the possibility of key workers to move to and fro within Europe.

Never the twain shall meet

But time is running out. By the end of June, the UK and EU have to decide whether to extend negotiations into 2021.

The EU has produced a 450-page list of issues to be negotiated and the UK its own 250-page draft treaty, which goes in a completely different direction.

Anyone who has negotiated anything at all can glance at the two texts and see instantly that this is the stuff of months — indeed years — of negotiations, as every comma can cost money to some corner of the combined Europe-wide economy and its 450 million consumers.

Plus, it stands to reason to assume that — no matter how much the UK government believes entitled to dig in — the EU has the upper hand in this negotiation.

Boris Johnson’s big problem

The problem for the prime minister is that most of the British public thinks that Brexit has been done with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU Treaties in January.

One half of the British public believes that the Brexit war has been won. The other half simply wants to move on.

But negotiating the “peace” is not easy – indeed, it is by far the hardest part for the UK to accomplish.

Cummings as the linchpin

Jaw-jaw, as Winston Churchill used to say, is certainly better than war-war, but for some the Brexit war can never end.

One of these eternal warriors is undoubtedly Dominic Cummings. More than two decades ago, he linked up with others like Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and cultivated rising Tory politicians like Michael Gove to push the idea of quitting the EU into mainstream UK politics.

In Downing Street, Mr. Cummings has been at the heart of the push for maximum amputational rupture with the EU — to be done as fast and as furiously as possible.

He is not satisfied with leaving the EU and settling down to a negotiated modus vivendi, like the Swiss or Norwegians.

A bad omen

But the coronavirus crisis has thrown these plans into the air. All four key players in the Brexit deal — the two heads of the negotiating teams, David Frost for the UK and Michel Barnier for the EU, as well as Mr. Cummings and Boris Johnson — were felled by the coronavirus with its lingering after-effects.

No one in any EU government is paying any attention to Brexit. Europe’s leaders have moved on and focus on the health threat and the frightening economic fallout from the pandemic.

Cummings in for a big surprise

As much as Dominic Cummings is accustomed to playing political games with the British public, and at its expense, he is in for a surprise.

As much as he may hope, even feel destined, that his 20-year campaign to cut links with Europe will come to fruition, he finds himself in a different game now.

The full weight of the EU is a mighty political opponent to have.

Moreover, whatever the rights and wrongs of his recent actions evading the lockdown, Mr. Cummings’ authority is now much less.

Too many MPs, from Tory ranks (!) as well as commentators generally supporting the Prime Minister, have called for him to go.

One Tory Minister has even resigned over the Cummings affair. And all those who think of the UK as an entirely civil country shall be reminded that civil servants can smell a wounded weakened beast better than any predator in the jungle.

Conclusion

Mr. Cummings still is the PM’s “eminence grise.” However, far from omnipotent, he will now find his orders challenged and circumvented.

He and the prime minister may try and force through a No Deal crash out Brexit. But what has changed for the main advocate of such a risky adventure, is that the UK economy, because of coronavirus, is now much weaker than the Brexiteers ever deemed possible.

It is indeed fair to say that it is now on life support. It needs a ventilator and medication — but not the added pressure of Brexit.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)

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Boris Johnson Digs In Over Dominic Cummings Affair and Brexit

Dominic Cummings, die-hard Brexiteer and UK sovereignty fetishist, is now part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s problems — and no longer a solution. Like all of Britain, most of Europe has...

One of the minor arts of broadcast journalism is the vox pop – a handy, if often overused, way to get real people into reports. I can let you into the secret of what makes a good one - It’s down to closed or open questions.

A closed question such as “do you think so-and-so should go?” is a bad question because it invites a monosyllabic answer.

An open question like  “Some people think so-and-so should go. Others say he should stay. What do you think and why?” gets an answer in sentence form and with an opinion.

The Johnson Cummings merry-go-round of recent days reminded me of the time when I was working with a reporter who was addicted to closed questions. I ended up elbowing him out the way and asking the questions myself.

I was reminded of my uncomradely behaviour when I heard that Dominic Cummings was doing his own news conference, the very day after Boris Johnson had defended and sought to exonerate his adviser. Like me, he clearly thought I can do a better job myself; proof that Cummings doesn’t buy into the idea that Johnson is a good communicator.

In the event, Cummings rose garden sit-in was its own kind of car crash, especially as he revealed he’d gone on a 50-mile drive to test his eyesight. He substantiated the main thrust of The Guardian/ Mirror reporting which had been rubbished by Downing Street only a couple of days earlier. 

An interesting video dissection of the Cummings statement is provided by Financial Times legal columnist David Allan Green QC. He says “wWhen faced with a serious risk of liability or exposure to liability...somebody with access to lawyers and with a certain degree of power and determination can structure what happened in a way which makes it as difficult as possible for that liability to actually be imposed upon them.”

But in the court of public opinion Cummings was found guilty.  The polling numbers were awful and worse he has succeeded in making himself a household name. He provoked the Daily Star to the almost unheard move of putting a political story on the front page. The Daily Star printed a cut-out-and-keep Dominic Cummings mask on its front page, telling readers: “Can’t be arsed to stick to the rules like the rest of us? Simply wear this handy Dom face covering and you’ll get away with murder.” Tory MPs were inundated with emails from voters. More than 50 called for him to go and another 50 expressed concern. 

Boris Johnson was desperate to “move on” but when he appeared before senior MPs on the Liaison Committee he was skewered by committee chair Yvette Cooper.  “The reason you’re not giving people a straight answer is you’re trying to protect Dominic Cummings,” she said.  He was putting that imperative above the national interest.

Johnson suggested it was time to “lay aside party political point-scoring”. But a striking feature of this session, according to Conservative Home’s Andrew Gimson “was that Conservatives were just as eager as opposition MPs to give the PM a bloody nose. Simon Hoare, Greg Clark, Jeremy Hunt, Robert Halfon, Caroline Nokes, Mel Stride and Huw Merriman were among the Tories who proceeded to do so. This sort of punishment cannot continue. Johnson’s defiance just annoys people. He will have to find some way to conciliate them.”

The verdict of Alex Massie in the Spectator  was that the “appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee once again revealed a prime minister painfully out of his depth.”

I think that is true for both bits of the Cummings–Johnson regime. Neither is as smart as they pretend to be. Welcome to the Dim and Dom show.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

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The Dim and Dom Show

One of the minor arts of broadcast journalism is the vox pop – a handy, if often overused, way to get real people into reports. I can let you into...

If you are going to U-turn, do it quickly. That’s what Boris Johnson did over an immigration health surcharge including NHS and care workers. So maybe the Prime Minister is brighter than we in the LME usually give him credit for. 

He was challenged on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and among several commentators, Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow judged that after two weeks when Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer had the field to himself, “this felt much more like a return to normal parliamentary service - a contested exchange, with no obvious victor, and both principals scoring points.”

Starmer’s “point about a care worker on the minimum wage having to work 70 hours to pay for this was a powerful one. Johnson’s defence was glib, but it did not feel like a decisive exchange.”

That judgement may have stood, had not LME executive member and MP Seema Malhotra smelled a rat, with John’s claim that the charges to migrants raised £900 million. Malhotra knows her numbers. Now shadow employment minister, she was formerly a shadow Treasury minister. 

She asked for a briefing from the House of Commons library and, guess what, Johnson’s figures were misleading in two ways. The £900 million was the sum raised over four years and it was what was paid by all migrants. The analysis shows the true cost is “somewhere between £1.2m and £35m”, depending on who exactly would be exempted among health and care workers.

Malhotra said: “Either the Prime Minister was poorly briefed or deliberately misleading at Prime Minister’s Questions. This isn’t about cost, it’s a political choice and hypocritical of a government that weekly claps for carers.

“In a fair immigration system, why would we want those who are coming to work in our NHS to support us and save our lives, to be paying for NHS care themselves? With these new figures, it’s time for the government to change its mind.” 

She appeared on Newsnight to press that view and had an embarrassed Tory MP Tobias Ellwood struggling to defend the government.

The revelation flushed out Tory MPs who signalled they were ready to rebel.  There was also a viral video made by a Syrian refugee and NHS worker Hassan Akkad.

The U-turn was announced the next day. 

So what was it?  Was Johnson badly briefed or did he deliberately set out to mislead MPs? 

It would be in keeping with his reputation for not being interested in details that he would simply have latched on to the £900 million without asking any questions. 

On the other hand, he is a proven liar – sacked by two bosses, one journalistic, one political for peddling untruths. 

For now, let’s score it as a victory for smart opposition and teamwork on Starmer’s front bench.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

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Anatomy of a U-turn

If you are going to U-turn, do it quickly. That’s what Boris Johnson did over an immigration health surcharge including NHS and care workers. So maybe the Prime Minister is...

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