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How Brexit and Biden fuelled chaos inside Downing Street

Departures of two top advisers show how the Johnson administration is preparing for a new era
An arrangement of UK daily newspapers is pictured on 14 November (AFP)

The British media has been convulsed in recent days by lurid stories about feuding and intrigue inside Downing Street. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street has been a cesspit right from the start, and it’s getting worse. For those new to this unedifying subject, I recommend reading Simon Walters, Britain’s most feared political reporter, in the Daily Mail

Walters describes in compelling detail how Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancee, has become a power in the land, setting in motion a chain of events that led to senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ departure by stopping his thuggish ally, Lee Cain, from becoming the prime minister’s chief of staff.

I expect a deal to be struck very soon. When this happens, we can expect a major explosion inside the Tory party - above all from Cummings' Vote Leave faction

While these reports are more than plausible, the mainstream British press is wrong on the most serious point. Cummings did not leave Downing Street because he lost a power struggle.

I don’t make this statement because I have better contacts inside Downing Street than other journalists. I don’t; since Johnson became prime minister, I have gone out of my way to avoid the unscrupulous and amoral chancers and third-raters with whom he has chosen to surround himself.

But I have been a political reporter for three decades. It is not a coincidence that the departure of Cummings comes at the exact moment when several political crises are colliding.

The first is Brexit. The transition period following Britain’s exit from the European Union runs out on 31 December. We will know in the course of the next few weeks whether or not Britain will be able to strike a trade deal with Brussels. We also know there is deep controversy at the heart of government about the terms of the deal, if any. 

Cummings’ Vote Leave group has long argued that Britain must threaten a no-deal Brexit, with all the risks that involves in terms of economic consequences. In contrast, most Cabinet ministers are now arguing with great force that Johnson must strike a deal. It looks like Cummings has lost the argument. 

I expect a deal to be struck very soon. When this happens, we can expect a major explosion inside the Tory party - above all from Cummings’ Vote Leave faction.  

Momentous argument

The fact that Cummings might have ended up on the losing side in the momentous argument over Brexit is the first substantial reason why the former Vote Leave chief might have walked out of Downing Street last Friday.

Cummings denies this. According to reports, he has said that “rumours that somehow the Brexit negotiations are involved are invented and comical to anybody who knows what’s happening in No 10”.

And yet, I wonder. Downing Street’s reputation for integrity since Cummings and his team entered has fallen sharply. I don’t believe Cummings. To me, Brexit still feels a far more realistic explanation than handbags at dawn inside Downing Street.

Adviser Dominic Cummings arrives at Downing Street in London on 13 November (AFP)
Adviser Dominic Cummings arrives at Downing Street in London on 13 November (AFP)

But there is another likely reason why the prime minister’s senior adviser quit. The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election earlier this month is even more important. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Cummings departed Downing Street the week after Biden won his famous victory.

Biden opposes Brexit, having made clear that he expects Britain to abide by the Good Friday Agreement. A no-deal Brexit would break this agreement by imposing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the south, with potentially terrible consequences. 

Cummings seems not to have cared less about this. But with a US trade deal essential to a post-Brexit Britain, Johnson cannot afford to anger Biden.

Johnson will not want to jeopardise Britain’s cherished intelligence-sharing relationship with the US. And consider this: British-American politics have followed the same trends for decades. Think of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. 

First sacrifice

As I have repeatedly pointed out in earlier Middle East Eye columns, Johnson will have to adapt to Biden. Cummings’ destructive approach to politics echoed Trump’s mayhem, bombast, disregard for rules and hatred of institutions. Biden will bring back discipline, order and respect for legality. Britain will inevitably follow suit. 

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Bear in mind that Biden’s election has already brought about significant changes in US client states (of which Britain is one) around the globe. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has released political prisoners. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is bracing to pay a heavy price for getting too close to the Trump administration. 

No wonder Johnson is likewise preparing for the new president. His first sacrifice was his controversial adviser, Cummings. It will not be the last. 

Had Trump won last month’s US presidential election, Cummings would surely still be in Downing Street - whether the prime minister’s fiancee liked it or not. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.