Power Struggle at Downing Street Boosts Hopes of Brexit Deal

The departure from Downing Street of two of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key aides, combined with the projected U.S. election outcome, is making it more likely that Britain will conclude a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, some British and EU officials suggest. Others are not so sure and fear Britain and the EU will fail to strike a deal — a chaotic eventuality that could do lasting damage to the British economy. For days, Britain’s media have been absorbed in the power struggle at the heart of the British government, which led to the abrupt departures of Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings and communications director Lee Cain, a former tabloid journalist.  Both men are Brexit buccaneers and guided the successful Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership. They oversaw Johnson’s victory in last year’s Conservative Party leadership contest and were the strategists for his resounding victory in December’s snap general election.  FILE – Dominic Cummings, then-Chief Adviser to Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, arrives in Downing Street in London, Nov. 13, 2020.Their sudden ouster — Britain’s newspapers have talked of a “purge of Brexiters” with more to follow from across ministries — comes just days ahead of a critical meeting Thursday of EU national heads of government to determine whether talks with Britain should be abandoned or if there has been sufficient progress to persevere. FILE – Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, wearing a face mask, is seen after a European general affairs ministers council, in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 22, 2020.The EU leaders will review the progress — or lack of it — toward a trade deal amid rising fears that negotiators, who started another round of talks Monday in Brussels, will struggle to make big progress. Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Sunday described negotiations as “very difficult” but said a deal is still “doable.”  British environment minister George Eustice told a British broadcaster that this is “a week when things need to move” to justify more time at the negotiating table. Monthslong negotiations have stalled over a deal and have been as acrimonious as the prolonged talks over Britain’s exit agreement from the EU. That agreement was only concluded early this year after months of parliamentary deadlock and the resignation of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.  Downing Street officials say the departure of Cummings and Cain will not impact the talks or force Johnson to adopt a softer negotiating stance when it comes to key outstanding differences between Brussels and London.  Compromise hopes  EU officials are heartened by the departure of the pair, who both favored a clean break with the EU. They believe the move may lead Britain to compromise more. Manfred Weber, a European lawmaker and close political ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Cummings’s departure, as well as the projected election of Joe Biden as U.S. president, will likely put pressure on Johnson to agree to concessions.  “Now is the time to come to a common understanding,” Weber said.  Biden has raised concerns about Northern Ireland and has warned that any adverse impact on the island of Ireland from Brexit would doom the chances of a trade deal between the U.S. and Britain.  FILE – Protesters against Brexit and the possible imposition of any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland gather with a banner near the Irish village of Bridge End, April 18, 2019.Philippe Lamberts, a European lawmaker and member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, told The Times of London that Cummings’s exit is “probably the sign that Johnson has begun his U-turn and will in the end accept EU conditions.” Britain left the EU formally at the end of January but is in a Brexit transition period with full access to the European single market and customs union until the end of the year.  A no-deal break with the bloc would see tariffs imposed on British exports to the EU and vice versa. The EU has insisted there must be some regulatory harmonization for Britain to conclude a trade deal with the bloc. There are also disputes between London and Brussels over state aid to industry, European access to British fishing waters and on the customs status of Northern Ireland.  The EU fears that if Britain diverges from EU regulations, British exporters will receive an unfair competitive advantage in the event they have tariff-free access to Europe’s single market. Lighter regulations would allow British manufacturers to produce cheaper goods.  “Without a level playing field on environment, labor, taxation and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world’s largest single market,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned. In the wake of the purge of Brexiters, Downing Street officials have scrambled to insist there will be no softening of Britain’s negotiating position.  “The government position in relation to the future trade agreement negotiations is unchanged — we want to reach a deal. But it has to fully respect the sovereignty of Britain,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.  Johnson himself reportedly assured Gerald Frost, head of his Brexit negotiating team who threatened to quit, that he is not going to compromise on his “red lines.” On Sunday, Eustice told the BBC, “I don’t actually think the departure of Dominic Cummings makes any impact on the negotiations.” Nonetheless, hard-line Brexiters remain worried, although some have publicly accepted that Cummings had to go. FILE – Carrie Symonds, partner of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is seen in London, Britain, Nov. 8, 2020.Most of the British media’s reporting on the power struggle has focused on personality differences in the Downing Street mix, which includes Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications director, and his newly appointed media spokesperson Allegra Stratton.  All the participants in the internecine skirmishes have reputations for being highly abrasive with Cummings, who enjoys special notoriety as a sharp-tongued, hyper-aggressive political fighter scornful of convention, hostile to the British establishment and determined to remake the Conservative Party into a populist one. His iconoclastic goals and disdainful style did not endear him to civil servants or traditional conservative lawmakers, who say he presided over a “culture of aggression.”  Symonds has urged Johnson to adopt a more consensual governing strategy similar to his approach when he was a successful mayor of London, Symonds’s friends say. She and her loyalists argued the Vote Leave faction in Downing Street had virtually been “kidnapping” Johnson.  The factions have skirmished via anonymous briefings to the media. Symonds reportedly showed Johnson text messages forwarded to her showing Cummings and his loyalists had been briefing against her and caustic about Johnson.  Downing Street officials say Johnson was “incandescent with rage” when he read the texts. 

About The Author

Leave a Reply