ANALYSIS The battle between two Dominics lies at the heart of Britain’s post-Brexit future

Posted On: 
7th August 2019

This autumn, politics is going to be dominated by two very different men both called Dominic, as the battle for Brexit draws closer to the 31 October deadline.

Dominic Grieve and Dominic Cummings will face off over no-deal ahead of the Brexi deadline
Credit: 
PA Images

The first, Dominic Cummings, is Downing Street's most powerful aide, drafted in by Boris Johnson to help him drag the UK out of the EU by Hallowe’en by whatever means necessary.

His adversary is Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General who is determined to make sure the new Prime Minister cannot take the UK out with no-deal and, ideally, halt Brexit altogether.

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Cummings thinks there is no way of stopping the Government pursuing no-deal, but Grieve is confident there are mechanisms Parliament can use to prevent it.

The future of the country rests on which one of them is right. So who will win the battle of the Doms?

‘A CAREER PSYCHOPATH’

After a spell away from frontline politics, 47-year-old Cummings has exploded back onto centre stage as potentially the most powerful man in Westminster, his boss included.

A former special advisor to Michael Gove and campaign director for Vote Leave, he is now the most senior aide in Downing Street, seen as a Rasputin-like figure pulling the strings of Tsar Boris inside Number 10.

The Durham-born son of an oil rig project manager and a special needs teacher, Cummings has long seen himself as an outsider inside SW1A, repeatedly voicing his contempt for politicians, civil servants and the establishment in general.

After studying at Oxford he worked in Russia for several years before joining an anti-Euro campaign group, and had his first brush with the Conservative Party as Director of Strategy for then-leader Iain Duncan Smith in 2002, but quit after just eight months, labelling his boss "incompetent”.

He helped lead the successful campaign against a North East regional assembly in 2004, before reportedly spending two years reading maths and science books in a bunker on his father’s farm in Durham.

He joined up with Gove in 2007, first working in opposition and then as a special advisor when his boss became Education Secretary, becoming known for his brusque demeanour and radical ideas, often clashing with officials.

Sharing Gove's reforming zeal, his style saw him clasing with civil servants and Downing Street, leading to David Cameron describing him as a "career psychopath".

After leaving his the Department for Education, he again disappeared from public life before re-emerging to successfully steer the Vote Leave campaign to victory, largely through the revolutionary use of use of data and the simple slogan "Take Back Control".

His sole contributions to the Brexit debate in the three years since the referendum were infrequent, but incredibly long, blogposts loved by inhabitants of the Westminster village eager to get his views on the main issues of the day.

But he hit the headlines again when Vote Leave was being dragged into the Cambridge Analytica scandal through the campaign’s links to Canadian digital firm AggregateIQ.

Cummings dismissed it as “the most loony accusation I've ever faced in 20 years in politics”, before following it up with a combative performance in front of the Treasury Select Committee. 

He was then found in contempt of Parliament earlier this year after failing to respond to another summons, this time from the DCMS committee, which was investigating the spread of fake news during the referendum campaign.

This has led to some Remain-backing MPs saying he should have been blocked from entering Downing Street, claims which have been swatted away. Make no mistake, Cummings is going nowhere anytime soon.

LEADER OF ‘A POLITE REBELLION’

And if Cummings wants to place himself on the side of the public in opposition to the establishment, then in Dominic Grieve he could not have dreamt up a more suitable foe.

The son of a QC who was the MP for Solihull for 20 years, related to a Baronet through his Anglo-French mother, he was educated at the Lycée Francais in leafy South Kensington, an all-boys' prep school in even leafier Barnes, followed by Westminster School before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford to study Modern History.

An avowed Francophile, he can regularly be heard broadcasting in French on radio and TV, and after serving as the president of the Franco-British Society he was awarded the Legion D’Honneur, the country’s highest civilian honour, for services to relations between the two nations.

After university he took up law and was called to the Bar in 1980, eventually rising to the level of QC in 2008, by which time he had already been the MP for Beaconsfield for more than a decade.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 he was appointed Attorney General, but was quietly sacked in a 2014 reshuffle.

No official reason was given, however Mr Grieve suspected it was because of his support for the European Court of Human Rights, which had become something of a bete noire for those on the increasingly loud Eurosceptic wing of the party.

It is a section of the party he has found himself hugely at odds with since the EU referendum, despite being a former Eurosceptic himself, having described Brexit as "national suicide".

As soon as two weeks after the UK voted to leave he said a second referendum could be justified, saying the first result had to be “treated with respect” but was not set in stone.

Having said “the time has come for a polite rebellion by pragmatic Conservatives”, he laid down an amendment seeking to give Parliament a “meaningful vote” on any deal the Government drew up with the European Union.

After it was passed in December 2017, he and the other rebellious Tories who helped that happen were branded “traitors” on the front page of the Daily Mail, having been labelled “mutineers” a month before by The Telegraph. 

It led to death threats, but undeterred he continued to use Parliamentary mechanisms to defy the then-PM Theresa May.

And his status as public enemy number one in the eyes of Brexiteers was cemented in January of this year, when he made a successful amendment to a Government business motion, allowing the House to wrestle control of the Brexit process.

The decision to allow such a move by Speaker John Bercow was condemned by Eurosceptics, with suggestions he ignored the advice of his own clerks, and claims of a “stich-up” abounded after details emerged of a secret meeting Grieve held with the Speaker the night before.

Since then he has tried and failed with a proposal to block Government funding to enable MPs to have a vote on a no-deal, as well as an attempt to prevent the PM from suspending parliament to force Brexit through by amending a bill on Northern Ireland.

Whether this works remains to be seen, but it has angered his local party enough to pass a motion of no confidence in him earlier this year, the first step towards deselection.

He defiantly said he would carry on “exactly as before”, and showed he is as serious as Cummings is by repeatedly threatening to bring down his own Government if it is the only way to prevent such a scenario.

‘WE’LL SEE WHO’S RIGHT’

To a great extent they have both become pantomime villains for either side of the Brexit divide, with the pro-EU campaigners angry at the idea of Cummings as a shadowy figure they accuse of duping voters and worse in pursuit of victory, a lying and scheming master of the dark arts who helped steal the referendum.

Meanwhile Brexiteers revile Grieve as the “traitor” trying to thwart the will of the people by meddling in Parliament’s procedures, they mock his privileged background, his Francophilia, his scholarly, fusty demeanour and his unwillingness to admit defeat in the fight to overturn Brexit.

Both descriptions are simplistic caricatures of much more complex figures – in many ways Grieve is self-admittedly an “old-fashioned Conservative”; pro-monarchy, he voted against the Equal Marriage Act, while Cummings is a Russophile obsessed with maths and Bismarck, whose big passion really is improving the standard of British education.

But with 31 October drawing ever closer they have become lightning rods for the battle over Brexit, with Grieve going after Cummings this week.

He said the claim by the PM’s top official that it is too late to stop no-deal showed his "characteristic arrogance and ignorance", accusing him of not understanding how the “constitution works or how the fixed term parliament act works”.

In a rare public appearance Cummings hit back, telling Sky News outside his home: “I don’t think I am arrogant, I don’t know very much about very much.

“Mr Grieve will see what he’s right about.”

‘WE ARE IN UNCHARTED TERRITORY’

With Parliament not sitting until 3 September, it will be several weeks before it can be definitively said which of them has been proved correct, but the result may rest on the interpretation of the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Rushed through by David Cameron in 2011 to prevent the Lib Dems from bringing down the coalition, it has been accused of having a “big ambiguity at the heart of the legislation” by the Institute for Government (IfG).

Under its terms, if a government loses a vote of confidence a two-week period to find a solution is triggered, but it has never been tried before and the IfG say “it is not at all clear what the 14-day period is meant to achieve”, nor is it clear who governs during it, saying we would be “in uncharted territory”.

Cummings is said to believe that the ambiguous way it is written would allow Mr Johnson to stay in Number 10, and then once the clock is wound down tell the Queen to schedule an election for after the October 31 deadline, preventing MPs from being around to stop it.

But Grieve gave this idea short shrift, saying it was “breathtaking, stupid, infantile and it won't work”, saying the law had a “contrary mechanism” allowing for a new administration, possibly a unity government, to be formed in the 14-day period.

He said of the PM: “The idea that he’ll just sit back and say ‘I won’t co-operate, I won’t do anything and I’m not going to resign’ is fanciful.

“He would have to resign and if he didn’t resign and there was an alternative Government presented which had the support of the House of Commons, in an extreme case the Queen would have to sack him.”

Although he said he had “no desire to see the Queen brought into politics”, he added that she was not “a decorative extra” - and one of her reserved powers was “getting rid of prime ministers who no longer have the support of the House of Commons”.

There are other options being explored for preventing a no-deal by MPs, including former Chancellor Philip Hammond and Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, but with so few Parliamentary sitting days before October 31 it seems unlikely any of them will come to fruition.

So it looks as though the chances of a no-deal rest on which Dominic comes out on top; Grieve and his procedural prowess, or Cummings and his force of personality.