Brexit Bulletin: Vote Leave is leaving the building

Brexit Bulletin
Bloomberg

What's happening? A titanic power struggle in Downing Street has left everyone guessing what it means for a Brexit deal.

The Vote Leave influence in Downing Street looks to be waning only days before U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to choose whether he wants a trade accord with the European Union. Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, two of the prime minister's most senior advisers, are leaving Johnson's inner circle. Both were advocates of leaving the single market without a deal if it meant making significant concessions to the bloc.

Dominic Cummings on November 13, 2020.

Photographer: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

EU officials are trying to divine if the departures will lead to a change in policy, as Ian Wishart reports here. (Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, told reporters on Friday that Cummings's departure won't change the U.K.'s approach to the talks.) The EU has long been spooked by the risk that the architect of the successful Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum would scupper any agreement at the last moment. Indeed, the pound was up on Friday as traders expressed optimism that a deal is now more likely.

But it isn't that simple. Events of the last week were not purely a fight over Brexit strategy—they were rather a raw power battle, and an argument over the shortcomings of government communications during the pandemic. Next week's deadline in the negotiations with the EU may have influenced the timing of the row, but it did not define it.

Some things have not changed. The deadline hasn't budged: The U.K.'s membership of the EU single market expires at year-end, and any agreement to replace it needs to be struck and ratified in good time. Cummings will be in Downing Street until the year-end. Johnson still doesn't have a chief of staff. Had Brexiter Cain succeeded in getting that job, he and Cummings might have been in a stronger position to push for no deal. Equally, even as the pandemic takes its toll on the U.K. economy there isn't a pro-deal figure in post to push the prime minister to make unpalatable but necessary compromises with Brussels.

David Frost, the U.K.'s chief negotiator, is also staying put. Like the prime minister, he wants a deal—but not at any price. The distractions of the past week may have only obscured the fact that Johnson still has to make his choice. Time, as well as space to maneuver, is running out.

Edward Evans

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In other news this week: 

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