The National:

IT says something about the kind of government Boris Johnson operates that its most significant personnel change to date has not been a major reshuffle of the cabinet, but the departure of his chief adviser and associates.

Dominic Cummings evidently wielded extraordinary influence in the Johnson government – more than most ministers. His exit from Downing Street, along with the impending exit of his acolytes from the wider machinery of government, will surely reshape the process of policy-making and the content of policy itself.

Given his central role in the Vote Leave campaign, and his subsequent role in government, Cummings has been described as the architect of Brexit. However, that dubious moniker is not really accurate. Brexit has always been a play in two acts. The first act consists of withdrawing from the EU and dismantling the UK’s EU membership domestically. The second act consists of finding a new relationship with the EU and rebuilding the British state without EU membership.

Almost four and a half years on from the EU referendum – and all the rancour, confusion and tumult that we have endured – we are only just at the threshold between Act One and Act Two. Cummings was instrumental in destroying the UK’s EU membership, and along with it much of the UK’s international reputation. He contributed little to rebuilding from the rubble. That process will now develop in the years ahead without him.

Cummings was therefore less an architect, more a demolisher. His clearest legacy is the takeover of Brexit populism in Westminster politics. This ideology is rooted not just in a desire to leave the EU, but an interest in seeing the EU fail. It denies the UK’s deep interconnectedness with the rest of Europe. It pretends that the UK’s prosperity does not depend on a close relationship with the EU. It ignores the UK’s geopolitical decline, which has been repeatedly voluntarily accelerated.

This Brexit populism will not fade away with Cummings’s departure from Downing Street. It is the foundation of Boris Johnson’s government. In full knowledge of the consequences, Johnson has deliberately chosen a distant relationship with the EU. He actively decided not to extend the Brexit transition, despite the coronavirus pandemic and lack of progress on a deal. Cummings was influential, but these were Johnson’s choices – and they remain his responsibility.

Whatever Johnson proclaims, the UK desperately needs a close and well-functioning future relationship with the EU. Masquerading that a no-deal Brexit would be a good outcome is disingenuous in the extreme. If the UK government took a moment to think beyond itself, it would recall that no-deal would also have a massive negative impact on Ireland and on Northern Ireland – neither of which chose Brexit. Johnson should remember these consequences, because the UK should care about its neighbours – and not just because US President-elect Joe Biden is invested in Ireland.

The EU will have a faint hope that this Downing Street purge will bring a measure of sense to the UK’s approach to the ongoing negotiations. However, Johnson’s Brexit populism is too existential to his government’s existence to be readily discarded. At this stage, a change of heart from London would still only result in a basic deal which avoided some of the damage of Brexit. Time is truly running out – and the post-Brexit, post-transition future looms.

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One of the systemic weaknesses of Westminster politics is its relentless short-termism. Its approach to Brexit is a case in point. The new EU-UK relationship being negotiated will last for years, if not decades. It merits seriousness and reflection, not calculation and brinksmanship. Through independence, Scotland would have the chance to build a much different relationship with the EU. The rest of the UK, however, will have to live with this Brexit deal or no-deal. The inevitable blame belongs wholly to 10 Downing Street.

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, the political analysis firm in Edinburgh