What if Dominic Cummings is right?

BY Andrew Willshire   /  10 September 2019

It is fair to say that last week was not Boris Johnson’s finest hour. He lost his first three votes in the Commons, 22 MPs from his party and his brother from the government. If politics is treated as a succession of wins and losses, “turning points” and “fatal moments” then it looks like the Johnson administration is already on the ropes.

However, one figure who explicitly does not view politics in this way is the PM’s controversial chief of staff, Dominic Cummings. In a 2017 blog, he wrote instead of “branching histories”, all of the possible paths that could have been taken (and nearly were). These histories are constructed of hundreds of interacting smaller decisions, any one of which could change the outcome marginally but none of which are the single moment where the outcome was decided. As such, he is unlikely to attach the same significance to recent events as most observers, considering them to be just smaller parts of a larger game.

One of Cummings’ obsessions is with organisational process. In another essay he described the management style of George Mueller, the NASA administrator who ran the Apollo space program:

He was a dedicated man who worked extremely hard and demanded the same of others. […] He inevitably ruffled many feathers but he was sure of the fundamentals of systems management and knew they would never reach the moon by 1970 unless he forced it upon the whole gigantic mess. ‘George didn’t sell; he dictated – and without his direction, Apollo would not have succeeded’

Change a few words, and you could be describing Cummings’ Downing Street operation. When asked by Johnson to take on the role, he accepted on the basis that he would have “complete control” of the Brexit process. The best way to understand Cummings is to understand his admiration of Mueller, especially given that the goal of delivering Brexit despite widespread opposition within Parliament is almost the definition of a “complex project”.

In this context, the day-to-day victories and losses do not matter unless they significantly impede the ability of that aim to be met. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a tactical loss if it contributes to a longer-term strategic victory.

For example, consider a situation where Boris Johnson wins a majority of 20 in a General Election, but 21 of his MPs still refuse to back his manifesto promise of leaving without a deal if necessary. He would be faced with the same stalemate as currently exists. In terms of the overall objective, it would be far better for Johnson to have a compliant majority of just 5. However, there was no way to deselect these 21 MPs unless the conditions were such that they would effectively deselect themselves. Mission accomplished.

And while you can scarcely move in Parliament Square for various campaigners wielding placards, loudhailers or xylophones, there has so far been no sign of the “Philip Hammond Restoration Society” taking to the streets. The sackings were a big deal in Westminster because events that personally affect our friends and colleagues take on exaggerated importance in our minds. But what proportion of voters could pick former Cabinet ministers Greg Clark or David Gauke out of a police line-up? Does anyone really think that their defenestration will be a pivotal issue in the next election?

Clearly, Johnson and Cummings want to move quickly. As we’ve seen over the last three years, Parliament is quite capable of permanent drift, with no majority for any decision bar delaying a decision. Allowing Remainers to continue leisurely plotting until a second referendum could be held would have been fatal to the Conservative party. Therefore, Downing Street came up with a two-stage process to force the pace. First, there was the insistence of leaving on the 31st October, “do or die”. This prompted some more leisurely plotting by the Remainers, confident that a no-deal Brexit could be stopped by Parliament despite Boris’ bluster. This group was then promptly thrown into disarray by the move to prorogue Parliament, the equivalent of issuing a “put up or shut up” challenge to opponents who were capable of neither.

Instead, various opponents of no-deal started taking actions quickly and predictably. From a Brexiteer standpoint, all the right people were furious. There were street protests, inflated rhetoric about a “coup”, angry MPs on television and no fewer than three separate court cases brought (had they been right, surely one would have been enough). But in fact, the prorogation made little practical difference. Parliament was able to push through legislation that prevented a no deal Brexit and then declined to have an election – some coup! But the result was that all the people desperate to stop Brexit voluntarily went on 24-hour news channels for a week in order to broadcast that fact. Under observation, Labour’s Schrodinger’s Cat-like Brexit position is now close to collapsing into a solid Remain position.

Johnson will be denied an October election, though. Faced with being required by law to request an extension from Brussels, it is more likely that he would resign as Prime Minister. Were he to do so, it would make sense to wait until after the party conference season. There’s no reason to take the risk (no matter how slender) of allowing Jeremy Corbyn to hold a conference in the position of acting Prime Minister. He would also have the chance of holding his Queen’s Speech on the 14th October. Were he to resign as PM shortly afterwards, just prior to the EU Council on the 17th October, that would leave just a few days for an acting government (of national disunity) to be formed and to seek an extension from the EU. Opponents in a hurry are more likely to make a mistake. For example, in extremis, it might turn out that Jo Swinson is prepared to back Jeremy Corbyn as a caretaker PM despite her protests otherwise. How will that play in Tory/Lib Dem marginals?

So, while a PM having to resign would normally seem like an ignominious defeat, it would allow the Conservatives the opportunity of campaigning as the insurgent Brexit-focused opposition to what would be a poorly stitched-together Remain-focused government, the constituent parts of which would all be campaigning independently and fighting like rats in a sack about who gets to be the person that triumphantly leads the UK back into the EU. In such circumstances, it is possible that Johnson could be returned as Prime Minister with a chunky majority.

That might seem far-fetched, but consider this – has anything happened last week or this week to harm Boris Johnson’s chances in a “People vs Parliament” General Election? Has anyone behaved radically differently to how might have been predicted beforehand? Arguably Corbyn’s refusal to go for an election was a surprise, but it hardly harms Johnson’s cause.

Most significantly, have Boris’s chances of delivering Brexit on the 31st October changed? Not if you believe that the chance of him doing so was always effectively zero. However, voters will have heard his clear desire to do so and they have subsequently witnessed him being blocked by Parliament. It was always going to be near impossible to get either a deal or no-deal through this parliament, but he needed the obstacles to doing so to be formalised and his opponents have duly obliged. Having until the end of January to negotiate Brexit will probably be quite useful as well.

Of course, we don’t yet know how this will play out. It could still go catastrophically wrong for Boris. But if he returns in triumph as Prime Minister then it will be because Dominic Cummings was right and the task of delivering Brexit was, in fact, rocket science.


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