Monday 19 August 2019

Willie O'Dea: 'Tories racing towards Brexit are ignoring lessons of the past'

The UK's political chaos is less about the cause of Brexit and more about the Tories' future

INFLUENCE: Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson
INFLUENCE: Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson

Willie O'Dea

While British voters can disavow much of what Boris Johnson has been saying in their name, it is not a luxury the Tory party members who voted to make Boris Johnson leader can claim.

The two thirds of voting members who backed Boris Johnson liked the image he portrayed. It was that of the bright, though dishevelled and bumbling, classicist and historian - someone who peppered his speeches with references to ancient Greek and Roman history, including the story of how the emperor Caligula appointed his horse, Incitatus, as consul.

Depending on which source you chose, Caligula's equine appointment was proof of either his depravity or his arrogance in humiliating others in his entourage.

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In much the same way, the jury is still out on Boris's wisdom in appointing the infamous Vote Leave campaign strategist Dominic Cummings as his principal, access-all-areas adviser. What is already clear, however, is that Cummings is now the most important unelected official in Britain. Westminster policy is now, in the words of the conservative political commentator Peter Oborne, "so much in thrall to an unelected official".

So much for the British people taking back control.

Yet, in an irony that seems entirely lost on Johnson himself, he has gathered a phalanx of unelected special advisers around him directing a no-deal Brexit government strategy. Central to that strategy is the demand that the backstop be abandoned as an undemocratic impediment to the UK leaving what it regards as the undemocratic EU.

Not only has Cummings no mandate, he has precious little government experience. Though now seemingly loyal to Johnson, Cummings started out as a close aide to Johnson's rival Michael Gove when the latter was education minister. Cummings's time in government was brief, having to quit when his vitriolic criticisms of the then prime minister, David Cameron, and the Number 10 team became public.

And he did not stop at Cameron. Cummings's capacity to collaterally damage political colleagues he does not respect has not endeared him to many, including some arch Brexiteers who backed Johnson. Not least the former Brexit junior minister and ERG vice-chair Steve Baker MP, who refused a ministerial role in Johnson's government. To his credit though, Cummings is said to have described Baker's former boss, the ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis as "thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus".

Yet now, the man David Cameron called "a career psychopath" is not just dictating policy on the biggest political change in modern British history, he was - within hours of entering Downing Street - telling UK government departments and agencies that he and Prime Minister Johnson plan to deliver Brexit ''by any means necessary''.

It is a phrase that should chill any democrat to the core.

And this was just his opening gambit. Last weekend it was said that Cummings told political staff that Johnson would simply continue on as prime minister even if he were to be defeated in a House of Commons no confidence vote. Instead, Cummings claimed, Johnson would ignore the result and call a "people v politicians" general election - though the Fixed Term Parliament Act may put paid to that notion.

Hardly surprising stuff from someone who has been held to be in contempt of the UK parliament after refusing to give evidence to a culture, media and sport parliamentary committee investigation into fake news during the Brexit referendum campaign.

The core motivator of Cummings's scorched Brexit policy seems not so much a belief in the cause of Brexit or the aim of leaving the EU, but an abject fear that the whole Brexit debacle - from the bitterness of the referendum to the clumsy negotiations with Europe - has so poisoned and damaged the British body politic that failing to deliver it will result in the annihilation of the Conservative Party.

This battle is less about the cause of Brexit and more about the future of the Tories.

Most Tories are now convinced that failing to deliver Brexit on October 31 will mean the demise of the party. So detached are they from the real lives of voters, particularly younger voters, that they feel that squandering the livelihoods and hopes of millions of Britons is a price worth paying to keep the Tory party intact.

In doing so, they miss the real lesson of political history here and elsewhere - namely that it's the parties who put the voters' interests before their own that survive and thrive.

Willie O'Dea is a Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City.

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