Richard North, 19/07/2017  

One of the oddities of Brexit politics is the way Dominic Cummings gripped the debate during the referendum, despite having a very slender understanding of the EU and related issues.

The oddity is not lessened by the fact that he can wander through the offices of senior politicians in a tee-shirt that hasn't seen the inside of a washing machine for several weeks since he first put it on, dirty jeans and scruffy sneakers, being insufferably rude to all and sundry - most recently to David Davis.

In some respects, it is a very skillful scam. If you behave outrageously in such an environment, there is a chance that people are taken in, believing that only someone with the self-esteem that goes with enormous intellect could behave in such a manner. To that extent. Cummings has pulled it off. But it really says something for the bubble – yes, they really are that stupid.

It was thus with the support of the bubble that this ghastly creature went on to play a decisive role in creating the mess that was the Vote Leave campaign.

The essence of his failure – alongside the egregious Matthew Elliott – was to avoid an issue-based campaign, which we could have won convincingly. All we had to do was focus on the prime minister's broken promise to bring back a "reform" treaty. This turned David Cameron into a liar – his whole campaign based on a deceit which we would easily have used to our advantage.

Such a campaign strategy, however, would have created huge stresses within the Conservative Party, something which the predominantly Conservative "leave" donors (who were also paying Cummings) were not prepared to support.

Also being put to Cummings at the time was the need for an exit plan. I had met him several times by June 2015 and was taking an active part in the Exploratory Committee, chaired by Owen Paterson, which was working up plans for what was still then going to be a "no" campaign.

However, as Cummings was to write in his own blog, a year before the referendum, "creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task". He noted, correctly, that Eurosceptic groups had been "divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions", and therefore, it was never going to be easy getting a single plan adopted.

At this time, I was in constant contact with Cummings. And after a dinner in a posh Italian restaurant in Westminster, with Owen Paterson,  I had shaken hands with him on a deal that would have had me working as a researcher for the putative "no" campaign. Even when I saw the Cummings blog of 23 June 2015 (coincidentally, a year before the referendum), things still looked promising.

An "interesting attempt" at an exit plan, Cummings wrote, "is FLEXCIT based on using the EEA as a transition phase – remaining in the Single Market and retaining a (modified) version of free movement – while a better deal, inevitably taking years, is negotiated". "This", he added, "is an attempt to take the Single Market out of the referendum debate".

At least Cummings had a clear idea of the basics, whence he promised in his blog: "I will discuss the merits of this idea another time when I've studied it more". But in fact, he never did discuss it – not with me, and not anywhere publicly.

I wrote my response to his blogpost – only then to have a tense conversation with Owen Paterson who relayed complaints about me debating these issues in public.

What I did was point Owen to Cummings's own concluding remarks in his blogpost, where he stated: "These big things must be confronted now in parallel to establishing a professional campaigning organisation and public discussion raises the probability of the NO campaign getting things right".

I had by this time e-mailed the text of my response to Cummings, on his private e-mail. But he never answered it, and I never spoke to him again. I had become a non-person and, although no one actually said anything to me, that was the end of my brief career with what was to become Vote Leave. That is the way these people work.

In his own blogpost, Cummings was already arguing that an exit plan was something that should be left to Government after the campaign had won the referendum. The "no" campaign was "neither a political party nor a government". It had "no locus to negotiate a new deal". Taking on this specific point. I put to him that, in effect, he was saying is that the development of an exit plan should be left to those in the position to execute it.

If this was a valid argument, I said, it would negate much of the rationale for the think-tank industry. Part of the necessary process of advocacy often adopted by think-tanks, I averred, is not only to propose a course of action, but suggest to government the means by which it should be achieved.

It is by no means unusual, I then said, for government to borrow ideas from those think-tanks (or other bodies), in order to execute their policies. One might even observe that the whole idea of the European Union came from outside agencies, as indeed did the methodology for making it happen.

Crucially, I put it to Cummings that an important part of making an idea happen was to suggest (sometimes in some detail) how it might happen. This was another good reason why a exit plan should be produced independently by the "no" campaign.

But there was an added advantage. In the event of success and the Government was forced to negotiate our exit, the plan could be used as the yardstick against which its performance can be measured. If it delivered a less advantageous deal than we suggested was possible, we would have good reason to ask why.

Of course, the official campaign did not adopt a plan. Instead, to satisfy his Conservative paymaster, Cummings built his campaign on a studied, and unnecessary lie – the £350 million claim. And when that had all but failed – disowned even by Farage - Vote Leave was forced to turn the referendum into a beauty contest, which we very nearly lost.

It was a huge gamble, pitting the questionable popularity of sociopathic Johnson against the prestige of the prime minister. Fortunately, the anti-politics mood of the day carried us through, but this was no thanks to the "genius" Cummings.

But what now brings him back into focus is his latest, extraordinary Twitter post, where he has the utter gall to complain that the government triggered Article 50 without a plan. This, in his view, is part of a "circular firing squad".

Amazingly, though (chutzpah doesn't even begin to describe it), he asserts that "Whitehall is systemically fkd", and our "only chance of rationality is largely OPEN process to elicit expertise from OUTSIDE".

This is a man who himself is wedded to underhand dealing and back-stabbing, in which he excels. He is the man who went out of his way to exclude outside expertise from the leave campaign. And, having ignored my advice on the exit plan, we are exactly in the situation I warned about – with no ability to call the government to adhere to what could have been the official campaign position.

In terms of grand strategy. Cummings has played it wrong at every level. Far from the "genius" that the bubble would have him be, he is a serial blunderer who barely won the war and has put us in danger of losing the peace. From behind enemy lines, Pete analyses our parlous position.

A least the Guardian has sussed Cummings, the "career psychopath", pointing out his numerous tactical errors that put him in the dunce league of politics.

So very far from being the "genius" that his credulous supporters would have him be, he is even totally misreading the current situation. We have gone way beyond the situation where outside expertise will help up. That ship has sailed, largely due to Cummings.

What we have in David Davis, buoyed up by his "deranged" Cabinet supporters and the "ultras", is a belief system in play. Briefed by the snake-oil salesmen in the Legatum Institute, Davis has swallowed the Kool Aid in wholesale quantities, believing the mantra that the EU "needs us more than we need them".

When it comes to "access" to the Single Market, he has convinced himself that the restrictions and controls that attend our status as a third country are simply "red tape" which the EU can sweep away if it is so minded. He sees the warnings from Barnier and others as "bluff" and expects, on the day, that officials at the ports will stand aside and let British trucks, laden with goods, thunder past untrammelled.

Buoyed up by this conviction, Davis and his team see no need to negotiate. To them, this is not even a British problem. Our access to EU markets is something for Barnier and his team to solve. They can let us know when they have found the solution.

For us to deal with this, we have to make clear the consequences. This is not going to stop the disaster but, at least, we will know who to blame. That is vital. The failure of the process must not be seen as a result of Brexit – rather the blame must lie with the incompetence of government – the Tory government.

When the disaster hits, this is going to bring down the government: the Tories will not be electable for a generation. That is what is at stake for Conservative supporters. If they ever want to see another Tory government, they need to make a success of Brexit.

Listening to the "career psychopath" is not the answer. Cummings is not the solution. He is part of the problem. Another part of the problem are those credulous bubble-dwellers who have fallen for the scam and believe him to be a genius.

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