One exotic claim floating around Westminster is that Dominic Cummings was fired to please Joe Biden. And that Boris Johnson will now scramble to fix an EU trade deal at any cost, since the President-to-be is hostile to Brexit in general and No Deal in particular.
This site believes that the Prime Minister wants an agreement in any event, and that one has always been likely. But that the possibility of No Deal is under-priced, and that while the mercurial Johnson’s head is for an agreement with our European neighbour, his heart is for a dash to the open seas.
We also suspect that the only Cummings that Biden has heard of is “Candy” Cummings, the baseball player credited with the invention of the curveball. Nonetheless, it is true that the prospective return of the Democrats to the White House has sent ripples through the set-up in Downing Street.
And while it is unlikely that Cummings’ departure was crafted to appease Team Biden, it really does seem that the American result, plus the prospective arrival of vaccines, encouraged Johnson to lift up his eyes to the future. Part of getting ready for it was finding a proper Chief of Staff. Hence the chain of events that led to Cummings leaving.
We offer two pieces of evidence for the blowing of a Biden wind – one rather tentatively, one less so. The first is the defence settlement sketched in today’s papers. The second is the Prime Minister’s speech on the environment.
On defence, Johnson will be keen to remind the Democrats that, while Biden is electorally engaged with Ireland and supportive of international institutions – and thus of the EU – backing for them has the capacity to cut two ways. Biden has a history of engagement with another such animal: NATO.
Which European country has the potential both to project military power and a history of supporting American leadership? France has the first but not the second, Germany the second but not the first. Only Britain ticks both boxes.
And bang on cue, the Prime Minister has overcome Rishi Sunak’s institutional Treasury resistance, and thrashed out a four-year £16.5 defence settlement. Not for the first time, the money comes first, the plan afterwards: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will be settled early next year.
But this time round, there seems to be enough on the table to at least shore up the position. We have yet see what the Chancellor wants in terms of the plugging notorious black hole in the Ministry of Defence, but Cummings’ aspirations for procurement reform are unmet.
One can see a legacy for him in reports of a new cyberforce, and an overall win for Ben Wallace from the overall settlement: he wanted four-year funding and has got it. Nonetheless, it may be that the driver of the decision was Johnson’s eagerness to prove to Biden that Britain remains America’s number one ally in Europe – “despite Brexit”.
There is a hint of that in claims that “the Prime Minister will restore the Royal Navy to Europe’s most powerful maritime force with largest military investment in 30 years”. One defence buff has been stressing to ConHome that a blue water commitment means preparedness to stand militarily with America against China.
But if there is doubt about whether the American result has influenced Downing Street’s defence decisions, there can be none about its connection to Johnson’s speech yesterday on the environment. Donald Trump took America out of the Paris Agreement, America actually left the day after the poll…and Biden wants it to go back in again.
The green speech was held up before the departure of Cain and Dominic Cummings, but has now been judged good to go. That decision will have had less to do with Carrie Symonds than with Team Biden – and the Prime Minister’s desire to stress that he is no Trump mini-me.
Furthermore, the UK hosts the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow next year. Scotland’s Holyrood elections take place before both it and the earlier G7 summit in Britain during the summer – for Britain has its presidency next year.
Summits mean sherpas, suits, speeches, statements – and pictures for the cameras of World Leaders Looking Statesmanlike. The Prime Minister will need a bit of that if the Conservatives are bashed about next year’s local elections south of the border and, more particularly, in the Scottish ones north of it.
There is a big push from Number Ten to stress that the green thing is all about the spiky, hard business of jobs in the Red Wall – or Blue Wall, as Tories like to call it now – and not the fluffy, softer instinct to save the planet. For once, it is marching in step with most Conservative backbenchers.
For although the zero emissions target for 2030 can only mean higher prices for some consumers, more demand on the poor old taxpayer, and a squeeze on business, even pro-Leave Tories are up for the enterprise: see today’s piece on this site, for example, by Ben Houchen, the Brexiteering Mayor in traditionally Labour Teesside.
Johnson’s argument is that green technologies are the wave of the future, eveyone else is piling in, and that their costs will come down – so subsidies now will be outstripped by profits later. Whatever your take may be, we are struck by the absence of organised protest so far from firms and consumers – and Tory MPs are riding the green bandwagon.
“Are you blind to the winds of change?” Elton John sings in Have Mercy On The Criminal – so deploying Bernie Taupin’s worst-ever mixed metaphor. Or should that be best? Whichever it is, the Prime Minister is not – and there is a faint echo here of Jonathan Powell’s disgusting advice to Christopher Meyer, which we are are too prudish to print.*
For the record: we believe that the American election is a done deal, and that Trump’s claim that isn’t it, when it comes down to it, showbiz – no more, no less. Nonetheless, our inner anarchist delights at the dream of the President somehow turning it all round, and watching the Prime Minister frantically straining to unscramble his green omelette.
*Oh, alright then: the former told the latter that “we want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there”.