Dominic Cummings is throwing up a smokescreen to disguise the real Brexit plan

The last thing Boris Johnson wants is a no-deal Brexit in the middle of an election

August 09, 2019
Cummings in Downing Street. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Cummings in Downing Street. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Powers behind the throne were once éminences grises, exercising their influence behind the scenes discreetly, but there is nothing shadowy about Dominic Cummings, who ran the Vote Leave referendum campaign in 2016. Now the prime minister’s right-hand political aide, he has hogged the headlines since his inflammatory suggestion that Boris Johnson could sit tight at No 10 if he lost a no-confidence vote in early September and call an election to be held after 31st October, making a no-deal Brexit a fait accompli.

The resulting furore has generated much heat as well as light. Jonathan Sumption, a former supreme court judge, says that Johnson would be entitled to hold an election after 31st October and that appeal to the courts would be fruitless because of the discretion allowed to the prime minister over the precise timing of an election. Dominic Grieve, a former Tory attorney general who supports a second referendum, envisages the Queen intervening if necessary to turf Johnson out of office, if an alternative government can be put together after he had lost a no-confidence vote, insisting that the monarch is not simply a decorative ornament in the British constitution. Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative foreign secretary, has said that if the prime minister lost a no-confidence vote and sought to prevent both parliament and the electorate having a final say on a no-deal Brexit “he would create the gravest constitutional crisis since the actions of Charles I led to the Civil War.”

The outrage is beside the point. Whatever the constitutional rights or wrongs of the scenario set out by Cummings, it is one that would be electorally disastrous. The idea that Leave-minded voters would be so grateful for their deliverance from the European Union that they would rally behind Johnson amid the chaos of a no-deal Brexit is preposterous.

Already, the economy is in trouble. The pound weakened today after official figures revealed that GDP shrank by 0.2 per cent in the second quarter, the first decline in output since late 2012. A no-deal Brexit will deliver a much sharper shock to sterling as the markets shun the currency of a country that has taken leave of its senses. Already the pound has fallen below €1.10, as British tourists in Europe are now finding to their cost; at the start of 2016 it was worth over €1.30. A no-deal Brexit could easily take the pound below parity against the euro for the first time since the single currency came into being two decades ago.

A collapsing pound would hurt consumers at home as well as abroad, by pushing up prices of imported products. But in the days and weeks after a no-deal Brexit, the real crisis would be a breakdown in the intricate supply chains that keep supermarket shelves stacked with food imports from the EU (accounting for nearly 30 per cent of all food consumed in Britain) at a time of year when Britain relies especially on imported food. Justin King, the former boss of Sainsbury’s, told the BBC this week that delays at the border would lead to “very significant disruption to food supply in the UK,” affecting especially fresh food, which requires a “completely seamless border” to ensure continuing availability.

A leaked memorandum about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit from Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, which was circulated to the cabinet in late March, warned that food prices would increase by up to 10 per cent, with steeper rises for fresh produce. Unpalatable though that might be, the bigger worry is that there may be no food at all to buy. Facing the prospect of shortages, panic buying is highly likely, clearing the shelves altogether.

Michael Gove has been charged with overseeing a new drive to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. But even though more money has been allocated for this renewed effort, time is running short and what matters is whether businesses are prepared. There is abundant evidence that smaller exporters to the EU are not ready. Many are unwilling to devote managerial time and resources to something where the government has already cried wolf. Moreover, a departure on 31st October could not be worse timed, since warehouses will be stuffed with products ahead of the busiest selling period of the year in the run-up to Christmas.

As important, it is simply not within the power of the British government to provide for an orderly no-deal exit. Britain will have to trade with the European Union under those famous WTO terms that “come what may” Brexiteers are so keen on. The EU will have to impose the same tariffs on imports from Britain as it does on those from other countries outside the customs union and without a trade deal. Overnight, that will destroy the livelihoods of lamb farmers while jeopardising the car industry. Moreover, the EU will enforce technical rules on imports from Britain that are likely to have a crippling effect on the movement of goods.

Could Johnson get round this by timing an election the day after Brexit, on 1st November? This would be a Friday, making the election the first not to be held on a Thursday since October 1931. Neither the effrontery of the choice of date nor the breach of convention is likely to bother Johnson judging by his behaviour since becoming prime minister. What would make him think twice is that holding an election then would not allow him to dodge the bullets. The pound would sink ahead of the election. Voters would be going to the polls amid reports of traffic snarl-ups at the ports. And, as consumers anticipated shortages, panic buying would already be emptying supermarket shelves.

Whatever the precise date, an election held in the chaos of a no-deal Brexit would be asking for trouble. Johnson might be able to say that he had delivered on the promise of the referendum. The trouble is that he would also be delivering the painful reality of the worst-case Brexit. Confronted with what that means in practice, many Leavers are likely to turn on the government rather than gritting their teeth and embracing Britain’s inglorious future.

Past experience suggest that electors do not take kindly to things falling apart on a prime minister’s watch. In the middle of a three-day week introduced to conserve coal stocks in his battle with the miners, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath lost his snap election in February 1974. Five years later, Labour premier James Callaghan lost to Margaret Thatcher after the “winter of discontent” that saw widespread strikes. “Sunny Jim” was skewered on his denial that the country was in chaos, prompting the Sun’s famous headline, “Crisis? What Crisis?”

In similar vein, the only occasion when Tony Blair’s dominance in his first term of office after Labour’s landslide victory of 1997 looked remotely threatened was during the fuel crisis in September 2000, when lorry drivers protested against high prices by blockading refineries and panic buying by motorists caused petrol stations to run dry. Labour briefly fell behind the Tories in the polls as the public held the government responsible for the loss of control.

Unless Johnson wants to go down in history as the prime minister with the shortest-ever tenure, he will not take the risk of holding an election soon after a no-deal Brexit. The only electoral strategy that has a chance of working is to hold it before, when Leave voters can still travel in hope. For all his desperado “do or die” talk, the prime minister is banking on MPs preventing a no-deal departure when they return in early September, whether through legislative means or a vote of no confidence that enables a temporary “letter-writing” government to ask the EU for an extension of the exit deadline.

In an ensuing election, that will enable Johnson to mount his “people versus parliament” populist campaign. That may not work, since general elections tend to defy attempts to confine them to one overriding issue. Heath sought to focus the February 1974 poll on “Who governs Britain?”; the answer was: not you. Even so, a pre-Brexit election is much more likely to pay off for Johnson than one held in the chaos of an actual no-deal Brexit. Cummings’s provocation makes good copy but it makes no sense unless it is a smokescreen for what the prime minister is really plotting.