The Exaggerated Importance of Changes Inside No.10

The author, Henry Bolton OBE, is a former army officer, police officer and international diplomat, and is now Chief Executive of the British Political Action Conference (BRITPAC)

The departure of The Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings, and Director of Communications, Lee Cain from Number 10 has sent political journalists and commentators into feeding frenzy. The two had been a powerful and controversial presence at the heart of government and it is natural that their departure would attract comment, however, the significance is almost nil.

The whole sorry episode has been exaggeratingly, calculatedly, damagingly and, one might say irresponsibly, fed by the Mail on Sunday newspaper. Some on the left in media, such a Lewis Goodall, political editor for the BBC’s Newsnight programme and former Labour Party activist, have rather gleefully commented on the rifts in Number 10. Remainer’s have been encouraged, hopeful that the departure of Cummings, together with Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, presages a softening of Johnson’s attitude towards the European Union. Prominent Leavers are apparently worried – Nigel Farage Tweeted: “So the Leavers are leaving Downing Street. Bad news for Brexit".

But looks can be deceiving.

The only reason this is potentially damaging for Johnson is because the media is saying it is.

There is no reason for ‘Remainers’ to be encouraged by the departure of Cummings and Cain. It has nothing to do with Brexit, talks between the UK and the EU or any softening in the Prime Minister’s position.

‘Leavers’ talking up the Brexit angle - Nigel Farage also Tweeted: “Seeing [Cummings] leave Number 10 carrying a cardboard box tells me a Brexit sell-out is close” - are raising fears that the government may make concessions to the EU. They may, but that’s unrelated to the departure of Cummings and in any case unlikely. Farage is in fact using the opportunity to mobilise fear of a Brexit compromise to gain support for his yet to be registered ‘Reform Party’. If he’s able to contribute to Boris Johnson’s discomfort at the same time, so much the better, as far as he is concerned.

In reality though, the departure of Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser and Director of Communications has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the recent appointment of Allegra Stratton as Number 10 Press secretary.

The position of Press Secretary was created by Boris Johnson after his not altogether smooth experience of providing regular Covid updates. He wants to emulate the White House style of press briefings. Stratton, a friend of Johnson’s partner, close friend of Carrie Symonds and formerly Director of Communications for Chancellor Richie Sunak – Sunak and Stratton are also godparents to each other’s children - was a shoo-in for the job.

Leaving aside the wisdom of adopting a US style for Number 10 press briefings, Boris made one basic, schoolboy error: He failed to realise that such an appointment was inevitably going to create friction inside Downing Street and it should never have been made. If it had to be, it should only have been with the support of the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who one would expect to be the post’s line manager. Even then, the success of such an arrangement is always highly dependent on the characters involved, and Stratton and Cain possess two quite different political and stylistic approaches as well as characters. The outcome was entirely predictable - an unsustainable rift between the two, polarisation within the Number 10 staff and the eventual departure of one or the other, resulting in embarrassment for Boris Johnson.

After Cain resigned, Cummings, in response to a media question, re-iterated his intention to leave by Christmas and also offered his resignation, at which point his position also became untenable. To have remained in Downing Street after that would have been to perpetuate the internal tensions the triggered by Stratton’s arrival. The Prime Minister was therefore right to ask both men to leave immediately, and it had nothing to do with forcing them out “in a purge Brexiteers”, as one headline in The Times has described it, nor is it an indicator of a divided government, as papers like the Mail on Sunday would have you and MPs believe.

However, turning to Brexit for a moment, albeit unlikely because of the tough stance rightly taken by UK Chief negotiator David Frost, a softening in the government’s attitude to the EU is now possible, and it’s nothing to do with Cummings and Cain. Let’s look at why.

The government delayed the final stage of talks with the European Union whilst they awaited the result of the US Presidential Election. Why? Because a win for Trump would make a rapid trade deal with the US easier to conclude than a Biden victory, and an early US trade deal would in turn help to mitigate any political and economic risk associated with failure to reach agreement with the EU. As a Biden victory appeared increasingly possible, the resolve of many in the Cabinet, including Michael Gove and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, weakened and voices were raised urging the Prime Minister to hold off on accepting no deal. Now the outcome of the election is known, the Cabinet is more confident to proceed, but with greater enthusiasm for a deal of some sort.

However, claims to the contrary, there are indications that Biden may be more inclined towards the UK than many have suggested, and his victory may actually good news for the UK.

Biden’s first telephone call to a European leader was to Boris Johnson. That cannot be insignificant. The UK is clearly at the diplomatic forefront of the Biden’s mind. Also, back in 1982, then Senator Joe Biden submitted a Congressional resolution that the United States should state whose side it was on in the Falklands War. He said: 'My resolution calls for the United States to state whose side we are on — the British side”

Asked by his interviewer whether this might not lose the good will of The Organisation of American States, which had passed a resolution in support of Argentina, Biden riposted: "We lose a great deal more by not standing with our oldest and closest ally."

Unconfirmed reports also suggest that President Obama is being considered for the post of Ambassador to the UK. If true, this is a massive endorsement of the ‘special relationship’ and should be welcomed. True, Obama infamously said the UK would be at the back of the que for a trade deal if we the voted to leave the EU, however, he was asked to do so by David Cameron and the reality is that we now have left. So, If Obama is being considered for the post, it is because we are the United States’ “oldest and closest ally”, not because he hostile to the UK’s choice to leave.

There is also concern in some US political circles that the United Kingdom, which gave the early United States so much in terms of values and democracy, is experiencing a self-inflicted decline in its politics and standing; that we’re allowing what our once great institutions to be eroded by excessive liberalism. Perhaps the US sees this nowhere more clearly than in the demise of our foreign policy. They are anxious. They see a close and dear friend, who’s help and support they may one day need, having lost their way and making some seriously poor life decisions. They aren’t quite sure how to help and how to do so is causing many heads to be scratched on the other side of the Atlantic. Whilst this is not particularly welcome news and may be taken by some as patronising, it does mean that the US wants to support the UK.

More good news is that Boris Johnson has some significant opportunities on the horizon to build a strong rapport with the new president. In the summer he will be hosting the G7 Summit and then hosting and then chairing the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November. Biden will attend both. So, the ball is in the Prime Minister’s court. Biden is not hostile to the UK, wants to help where he can but, how close a friend he proves to be will depend a lot on the diplomatic acumen of our Prime Minister.

That was the good news. Now for the bad.

Whilst there is no doubt that a Trump win would have given the government some greater confidence in accepting a no-deal outcome with the EU, one would hope that their strategy towards the talks has not been dependent on something so entirely outside Number 10’s control as the US presidential election outcome. But that is how it is increasingly looking. How else to explain the now more cautious approach of Sunak, Gove and other senior members of the government? For the government to have put so many eggs in only one basket – that of a deal with Trump – reveals a serious degree of complacency and a worryingly poor level of strategic acumen and planning.

That complacency has dominated and strategic acumen is so serious lacking is further evidenced by the failure to plan and prepare the nation fully for a no-deal scenario. Motorways are still being reconfigured, customs arrangements and facilities are not yet in place and built, there is still work to be done on sorting out immigration and support to various sectors of the economy has been thin to say the least.

The EU referendum was held four and a half years ago. That is almost precisely the same period of time that World War 1 lasted. Yet the government has somehow failed, in all that time, to put the pieces in place to ensure that UK is fully prepared to meet the end of transition. Covid distraction is no excuse for such a major strategic failing. Since 2015, I have been saying that the greatest risk of Brexit is not in leaving the European Union but is in having a government too incompetent or negligent to manage the process. That remains the case.

Complacency and lack of strategic acumen are by far more significant indicators of government weakness than the departure of two advisers from Downing Street, so let's get our concerns in the right order. But, there is a third indicator and it does relate to Dominic Cummings.

Cummings had already said that he hoped to work himself out of a job by Christmas. In other words, he felt his job would be done by Christmas. Given that his primary purpose was to advise the Prime Minister on Brexit related matters, does that mean that Cummings sees the end of the transition period as being job done? I sincerely hope not, because if so, he is very wrong. The real work of Brexit is building the nation up to be confident, optimistic, prosperous and secure at every level of society after the transition period ends. That is when the hard work really starts. If Cummings has missed that point, then most of the government probably has too, and it’s not only the government. One national newspaper columnist tweeted that “Brexit done this week though” – wrong – and a major characteristic of the pro-Leave parties, UKIP and the Brexit Party, and their leaders, has been a dogged refusal to engage in serious debate as to how to take the nation forward after the transition – irresponsible. They, not only the government, have all failed to provide any strategic vision, or credible policies to support such a vision. Brexit is all about what we do next; Brexit without a vision for the future and policies designed to build a confident, optimistic, confident and secure nation, is a half-cocked thing. Brexit is not “done this week”.

In conclusion, the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from Number 10 is a matter of internal staffing difficulties attributable to the Prime Minister’s poor decision to appoint a press secretary. It does not indicate any particular change in policy or attitude towards the EU and is relatively insignificant.

That said, a softening in attitude towards the EU may possibly result from the victory of Vice President Biden in the recent US elections, for the reasons given.

There are two main things to take away, however. The first is that those who are our freinds in the United States are right to be worried about us. Our present politicians, including those supportive of Brexit, however popular or individually successful, lack strategic acumen and are predominantly self-serving opportunists rather than altruistic adherents to the principle ‘Serve to Lead’. The second is, that, likewise, too many in our mainstream media are equally self-serving and egotistical opportunists. If they want to be in politics, they should change careers and become politicians.

If we are to set our Nation on a trajectory towards confidence, optimism, prosperity and security, we must demand statesmanlike leadership from our political leaders and for that to happen the culture of political parties has to change.

I leave you with this question, how many people vote in an election, but don't actually believe that any of the candidates are really right for the job of leading the nation from Parliament?

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