Britain’s Brexit clique has fallen as London senses Biden changes the global political weather
If Brexit was a pressure cooker, it would have suddenly popped the lid last week.
Politics behind the scenes suddenly sprang into an ugly public feud as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly lost two of his closest henchmen. What it says is that Mr Johnson has reached a fork in the road and chosen to change tack. It also says that there has been a decisive shift in the global political weather.
Scope for manoeuvre as Britain breaks its nearly five-decade partnership with the European Union has steadily shrank throughout 2020. At the eleventh hour, Mr Johnson could not go on toeing the line of his most zealous advisers. That is not to say that the EU and Britain could fall into a bitter no-deal situation when trade talks reach the end of the road in the coming days.
Most importantly Dominic Cummings, the mercurial Prime Minister’s adviser, was reportedly driven out. No one was more central to the promises of a transformational UK leadership in the wake of Brexit than Mr Cummings.
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In walking with a cardboard box from the lacquered black door of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence and office, Mr Cummings added a soap opera feel to the week. The cracks had first emerged when Mr Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain made a bid for the open position of the chief of staff job in No 10.
Mr Cain could best be described as hard charging, as is his mentor Mr Cummings. He served as Mr Johnson’s handler during the campaign for the Brexit referendum in 2016. A depiction of Mr Cummings by Benedict Cumberbach, star of the TV series Sherlock, sealed the legend of the operative as a "Svengali" of the process. Following his rumoured exit, questions swirl over whether Brexit can enter a messy realm of compromise that visionary cannot stomach.
The answer to that will be known when the negotiators finally break up.
There will be a wider impact of the bust-up. Strategic considerations about Britain’s place in the western firmament have suddenly changed.
The election of Joe Biden as the next US president turns the weather for Brexit into an oncoming storm. Mr Biden has long-standing concepts of how the West should hang together to progress its goals and shape the global order. His world view is opposite of that of the current US President, Donald Trump, who credited the Brexit vote in 2016 as a precursor to his own rise to power.
No one can reverse that vote, not even a new American president with his own perspective. Yet that is only a baseline call in 2020.
To drive out the discordant notes from the centre of power is one thing. To find the positive paths is another
A second Trump term would not have sought the unity of purpose that used to characterise America’s relationship with Europe and other close allies. Mr Biden thus offers a very different proposition. The imperative on British policymakers is to recognise that the space for guiding the Brexit project to a new stage has shifted.
It will be incumbent upon London to show that it is ready to keep a platform of unity with the rest of the Europeans.
Aides to Mr Johnson have touted the Prime Minister’s leadership of the G7 and the Cop26 conference in 2021 as proof of a central role for the British leader as Mr Biden takes the reins. Both men adopted the slogan "Build Back Better".
Almost year after his own election victory, Mr Johnson is still grappling with how to deliver on his tagline. In the febrile corridors of Downing Street, senior Conservative figure Bernard Jenkin described events of the week as an "opportunity to reset”. One Conservative newspaper columnist, Fraser Nelson, said simply that the "Vote Leave" clique had “fallen".
Amid all the talk of a reset, however, there is no real vision of what lies on the other side. Mr Jenkin talked of a chance to restore respect, integrity and trust. Mr Nelson talked of an end to psychodrama and bedlam. In Britain – as in America – it seems that the opportunity for government by impulse and radical experimentation has suddenly vanished.
The coronavirus pandemic amounts to the other big pressure on the system. Even after the 15 per cent jump in GDP in the third quarter, the British economy was 10 per cent below the high water mark set before lockdown.
Mr Cummings and his clique were suspected to hold a tantalising thought that the slump was already so big that people would not feel the effects of another big drop induced by a Brexit that severed European trade links. But that was always an experiment that no sensible government could unleash.
That said, to drive out the discordant notes from the centre of power is one thing. To find the positive paths is another.
Mr Johnson can still change the shape of his government to respond to the turning winds. It would be a move to preserve and repair his position. It would also set the tone for 2021, almost as much as Mr Biden’s inauguration.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National
Updated: November 14, 2020 07:47 PM