Breakingviews - Britain’s Brexit dilemma outlasts its architect

Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 13, 2020.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s dilemma over Brexit will outlast its architect’s grip on power. Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the campaign to leave the European Union, will step down as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser by the end of the year. Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president makes the prospect of exiting the EU without a trade deal look even more foolish than before. But with just a few weeks left to forge a compromise, that could still happen.

It’s easy to overstate the significance of political advisers. Yet it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that, without Cummings, Britain would probably have voted to remain in the EU, and Johnson would not be prime minister. The departure of such an influential and divisive figure from the heart of government may therefore signal a broader shift in direction.

A much stronger reason for Johnson to change tack is the result of the U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump was determined to undermine the EU; Biden views it as an important ally. The former vice president’s victory also means the United States is less likely to prioritise trade talks with the United Kingdom. A deal with America would be no substitute for a UK agreement with the EU but it was symbolically important for Brexit supporters.

Johnson has little time to rethink. Without a compromise, Britain will face tariffs and other barriers on all its trade with the EU in just seven weeks’ time. The prime minister has already strained relations with its biggest trading partner by proposing domestic legislation that potentially breaches a legally binding agreement he signed with the EU in January. Even if Johnson backs down, other European leaders will be less trusting of any promises he makes about respecting labour laws or rules governing state aid for businesses.

The coronavirus pandemic has left Britain even more exposed to the economic shock of Brexit without a trade deal. But widespread unhappiness among his party’s backbench parliamentarians mean Johnson is also poorly positioned to sell any compromise. The prime minister has few clear policy priorities beyond his pledge to “Get Brexit Done”. Even though Cummings is going, the worst outcome is still possible.


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