Dominic Cummings may have just revealed why Boris Johnson could plump for a Brexit referendum

Hugo Dixon
Cummings, seen at a book launch last week, is supposedly known for his immature behaviour in meetings: PA

​Could Boris Johnson conclude that it was in his interests to go for a Final Say vote? Listen to what he says and that would seem impossible. The prime minister is determined to leave the EU by the end of the month, “do or die”. Failing that, he seems keen as mustard to have a general election.

But the chances of leaving the EU in three weeks’ time are vanishingly small. Johnson will instead be compelled by the new Benn Act to ask the EU for a delay. This means his real plan A has to be to force an election. He would presumably hope to win a majority and then take us out of the EU early in the new year.

But is this plan A really a good one? One only has to look at the backlash to a briefing this week to The Spectatorby a senior Downing Street official, widely presumed to be Dominic Cummings, to see the problems. In particular, what Brexit policy would Johnson put in his manifesto?

The Spectator’s informant takes a very hard line. Essentially, the Conservative Party would steal the Brexit Party’s clothes. It would promise to leave the EU without any deal at all. In that way, Johnson would hope to deny Nigel Farage a meaningful share of the vote.

The snag is that there are still a few dozen Tory MPs, a handful of cabinet ministers and maybe a few million people who normally vote Conservative who would be horrified at the prospect of crashing out of the EU. Some of those ministers – including Matt Hancock, Nicky Morgan, Julian Smith, Geoffrey Cox and Robert Buckland – are said to have made their unhappiness clear at yesterday’s cabinet.

There is also a group of Downing Street officials, centred around Edward Lister, the prime minister’s other senior adviser, who don’t seem at all happy with the crash-and-burn strategy. They are not keen just to get Brexit done. They would like to keep Johnson in power.

So what about putting some fudged position on Brexit in the manifesto? Have some words about negotiating a deal accompanied by some tough verbiage about being prepared to leave without a deal?

Such language would mimic what Theresa May said in her 2017 manifesto. It might just paper over the divisions in the parliamentary Conservative Party. The problem is that Farage would then have Johnson’s guts for garters. The Brexit vote would be split and it would be harder for the Conservatives to win an overall majority.

So Johnson may be damned if he goes for a crash-out manifesto and damned if he doesn’t. He doesn’t face the same problem with a referendum.

In such a scenario, where the prime minister was advocating for a People’s Vote, the choice would presumably be between leaving the EU without a deal and not leaving at all. Johnson and Farage would be fighting on the same side. But, as in the 2016 referendum, they would not need a formal alliance. They could have their own separate campaigns.

There would, of course, be divisions within the Conservative Party. A few MPs would campaign to stay in the EU. But, as in 2016, that would not necessarily lead to a split in the party. After the referendum, the different wings might be able to come together again.

Holding a referendum, of course, is not risk free for Johnson. For a start, it would be a massive U-turn. But he could remind people that he had toyed with the idea of holding two referendums – one on the principle and another once the details of our exit were known – back in early 2016.

The prime minister might also easily lose the People’s Vote. There would be much egg on his face. But, even if the worst came to the worst, he would have delayed his departure from Downing Street by a few more months.

On the other hand, Johnson has an extraordinary ability to extricate himself from difficult situations. Even if he lost a referendum, he would not necessarily have to resign either as leader of the Conservative Party or prime minister. He might even win a subsequent general election, especially if his main opponent was still Jeremy Corbyn.

It is worth remembering that before 2016 Johnson never pretended to be enthusiastic about Brexit, let alone the crash-out variety. So hanging on in Downing Street after we had decided to stay in the EU would have its compensations. He could do the things he really likes, such as parading around the world stage and splashing out money on mega infrastructure projects – and not have to bother about bloody Brexit again.

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