Dominic Cummings’ schemes seem less convincing than those of Blackadder’s Baldrick. So what exactly is the Number 10 masterplan? Asks JAMES BALL
Just as the flaws of any cunning plan hatched by Baldrick on behalf of his master Blackadder would be swiftly exposed, so too are the machinations of Dominic Cummings, on behalf of his boss, Boris Johnson, rapidly unravelling as their details emerge.
For months, ministers, outriders and “Number 10 sources” have briefed that there’s a masterplan in place – to secure a deal, to secure no-deal, to make no-deal work, to circumvent parliament, to avoid the Benn Act, or to do any number of other things.
The only issue, most ministers would continue, was that they personally didn’t know what it was. A few – keen to look savvier – took the riskier line that, of course, they knew what the plan for some particular course of action was, but that it was far too secret to be shared with the voters (or, apparently, their cabinet colleagues).
The rest of us were therefore left to suppose the plan resided in the head of the man referred to as Boris Johnson’s brain: Dominic Cummings. And then the Spectator published online earlier this week what it claimed to be a nearly 800-word message from a “Number 10 source”, instantly and almost universally recognised to be Dominic Cummings by members of the lobby.
Some observers noted with surprise that someone in a senior Number 10 role had written a text message – or a WhatsApp, opinions were split – numbering more than 750 words, more than most people would ever write on a messaging app. Those more familiar with Cummings were astonished he’d written something so short.
The contents, alas, were close to an incoherent mess. Rather than revealing the government had a plan for negotiations or for no-deal, the message was a collection of barely-connected soundbites and empty threats – perhaps capable of winning a domestic media cycle, but nothing that would impress any EU negotiator.
Which is a shame, as, taken at face value, that’s supposedly who the government are trying to impress. Essentially, our “senior Number 10 aide” reveals that the secret plan to circumvent the Benn Act – which requires the prime minister to request an extension to Article 50 if he hasn’t agreed a deal by the middle of this month – is to comply with it, but make it really obvious they don’t want to.
This will come as shocking news to absolutely no-one, given that the leaders on the continent are perfectly capable of watching British television, reading UK news websites, and tuning into parliament, if they really wish to depress themselves.
Any of the above would have given subtle clues that the government didn’t want to seek an extension – such as their endless pronunciations on the media that they wouldn’t seek an extension, their £100 million advertising campaign insisting the UK would leave on October 31, their voting against a bill to seek an extension, their threatening to break the law rather than obey the mandate of that bill, and their multiple attempts to seek an election rather than an extension.
Somewhere, in that morass of ambiguous signals, EU leaders have already ascertained Johnson doesn’t want an extension. Given that, it’s not especially clear what effect Johnson and Cummings reiterating that point is going to have. As EU leaders regard it, there’s a decent chance neither of them will still be in position by the end of the year – you never know your luck.
It’s here, then, that Cummings would need a brilliant next step to his plan, which is unlucky for him. The next phase of his message warned that the UK would punish any country which granted an extension to Article 50, and favour any which moved to block it.
This comes with several problems. The first of which is that the UK is one country out of 28 in the EU, and only shares a land border with one other EU nation. Anyone working overly hard to favour the UK risks angering 26 other countries – and they’re all capable of doing the maths.
Secondly, the point of the EU – which Cummings appears to have somehow forgotten – is that it is a trading bloc. It’s simply impossible for one country within that bloc to be granted a trade deal or similar arrangement that wouldn’t benefit the others, too.
Getting a good deal by playing nations against each other – remember when German car builders were going to deliver Brexit? – didn’t work in 2016, and is just as impossible now. Short of encouraging Brexiteer boycotts of Dutch tulips, Cummings is making an empty threat – and the EU knows it.
Cummings is left with the threat that after an election, the Conservatives would just seek no-deal and be done with it – the current unacceptable offer wouldn’t be made again. Should the Conservatives find themselves with a majority and a five-year term before facing the voters again, are we really to believe they’d feel obliged to take an option they clearly believe is worse than their deal? The EU will find their chances.
Johnson – ever the journalist – and Cummings are good at making headlines. But good headlines don’t make good strategies, at least in the long term. But for now, it might just work — it’s only got to last until an early election before falling apart. That’s Cummings’ real cunning plan. And so far at least, despite the chaos and the humiliations, it’s working.