The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

30 May 2018

Politics and Society

It is difficult to think of two people less likely to see eye-to-eye than Ivan Rogers and Dominic Cummings.

Rogers is the undisputed mandarin’s mandarin, an embodiment of establishment continuity, and a firm believer in the doctrine that Whitehall knows best. Cummings is the self-styled anti-mandarin, an embodiment of radical disruption, and a firm believer in the doctrine that Dominic Cummings knows best.

Both are at the opposite ends of what is now the key Brexit divide in Westminster: between those that see Brexit as an exercise in various degrees of damage limitation, and those that see an opportunity to either be maximised, or botched.

Perhaps it’s no surprise to see interventions, from these two key figures at polar opposite ends of this divide, united in their dire prognosis on the Brexit process. After all, Brexit brings people together in unexpected ways. For example, back in January, both Nick Clegg and Jacob Rees-Mogg were in agreement the UK’s best bet was to ask for an extension of the Article 50 process, to buy time for the government. Strange times create strange bedfellows.

But the degree of harmony between Ivan Rogers and Dominic Cummings is still striking. The key point both underline is the dilemma facing the UK government: third country status outside the EU brings real structural change to the UK, and the government has yet to face up to the fundamental real-world choices this demands. Both see the government as unable to confront the challenge.

The government, they argue, is at best delusional and dysfunctional in not facing up to this fact and, at worst, complicit in doing all it can to hide the trade-offs it knows are coming fast. What both share – Rogers as a machinery facing-civil servant, Cummings as a political operator who has a hard-fast belief in his ability to politically sell anything – is a focus on policy outcomes rather than political rhetoric.

Both judge the government on its capacity for reaching hard choices, rather than their ability to reach consensus positions that triangulate between. May’s approach of obfuscation and delay is seen not just as bad tactics, but bad strategy.

And while both share a prognosis, they crucially disagree on the diagnosis. Ivan Rogers bemoans a lack of ‘institutional memory’ as a hindrance to the UK getting real. Dominic Cummings argues that the machinery of Westminster and Whitehall is crippled by too much belief in the applicability of the past, leading to an inability to think creatively on its feet.

Cummings believes that ‘world class legal advice’ and (*cough Michael Gove cough*) high calibre politicians in key positions in the UK executive would make all the difference. Rogers believes that the struggles the government faces are an almost inalienable fact of life.

This creates a paradox. Rogers believes in the institutional settlement of supranationalism at an EU level, and the capacity of the UK civil service to deliver positive outcomes. He just doesn’t think these institutions could ever deal with a conundrum like Brexit effectively.

Cummings has no faith in the institutions of government here or in the EU to deliver what is best for people. But he believes with a few different names running the show and some further rejigging of the Cabinet Office, the promises of the Vote Leave campaign are deliverable.

Ultimately, both Rogers and Cummings show the detachment between the voter-led causes of Brexit and the resulting elite-led policy outcomes. Rogers (with some justification) despairs at those hazy with the details on future trade, and the government’s inability to think coherently about hugging the single market close.

But you come away with little sense of how, politically, we might get to his end destination.

Cummings (with some justification) feels he can read the electoral runes and sense a narrative of betrayal. But Cummings dismisses and blusters through the hard decisions faced by the government – on Ireland, and the ‘multiple incompatible promises’ forced on the government by a successful democratic campaign he himself led but cannot account for.

As a result, neither is able to plot a convincing governing and political path ahead for Theresa May.

In that sense, both men have more in common than they might imagine.

By Alan Wager, Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe


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