Media obsession with powerful advisers is not new. The influence of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson was the stuff of hysteria in the Tony Blair years. Bernard Ingham and Marcia Williams were accused of having undue power during the eras of Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson. Right back to the original éminence grise in 17th century France, Père Joseph, and probably beyond, the mystique of the all-seeing adviser behind the throne has been a constant theme.
But how well grounded is this in reality? What we do know is that those who work in the shadows are catnip to journalists who know less than they pretend about the workings of government. This is especially true in an embittered political era with a taste for conspiracy theories that seem to offer partisan observers simple explanations of complicated events. Sometimes the credulity can be abject.
All of this has suddenly come together in Dominic Cummings, the new Downing Street prince of darkness, whose reputation for malign mastery has quickly vaulted to levels unmatched even by Campbell and Mandelson. Last week Cummings reportedly told his team that parliament could not oust Boris Johnson before the 31 October Brexit deadline even if he lost a vote of no confidence. On Wednesday Sir Malcolm Rifkind warned that Johnson could lose his head if he did a Charles I and defied the constitution in that way.
When advisers become the story, as Cummings did this week, they should watch their backs as well as their heads. This sort of thing breeds resentment. Cummings already risks appearing – and being – the over-mighty subject of what is anyway a precarious and sectarian government. Something similar ended Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill’s tenure under Theresa May. Over the next few weeks the narrative of Cummings the magician will be tested to destruction. The destruction will either be ours or his, and possibly both.
Yet it would be as much of a mistake to dismiss Cummings as to exaggerate his mastery. He has certainly brought two weeks of focus to the Johnson government by making the Halloween deadline a non-negotiable centrepiece. He has changed the political conversation from Brexit or people’s vote to deal or no deal. Depending on events in the early autumn, he is clearly gearing up for a possible general election shortly afterwards.
But Cummings does not control events. He is not Prospero, able to conjure up a tempest that delivers his enemies into his hands. He is having a good run, but he is helped by the most irresponsible parliamentary summer recess of modern times. Even now MPs should be aiming to get back to Westminster and hold the government to account before the planned return on 3 September. They should scrap this year’s party conferences too.
Cummings is also only one player. The idea that he pulls all the strings is lazy and wrong. The Brexit outcome depends on a tangled web of interests and influences beyond his control. These include everything from the role of the Queen to the hoarding of toilet rolls. In particular, it depends on events in the real economy, in parliament, in the courts, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Irish Republic, in the EU and in Johnson’s own head.
Those who take a Cummings-fixated view of the options find it is easier to forget this. They say the government’s aim is to crash out with no deal on 31 October and nothing will stand in the way. But that is not quite what Johnson and some of his ministers say. They say, still, that a deal is one possibility, perhaps a remote one, and that the UK government is even now looking for a deal with the EU in the next 12 weeks.
This is often dismissed as a mere smokescreen because the deal Johnson wants is not on offer from the EU. But Johnson’s specific demand, though difficult for the EU to concede, is also very particular. He does not want to reopen every bit of the withdrawal agreement. He wants the Irish backstop removed from it. The EU says the backstop – a sensible guarantee that is supported on both sides of the Irish border – is a non-negotiable part of the withdrawal agreement. On the face of it, therefore, there is no possibility of a new deal.
Yet step back from this confrontation a moment if you can. Listen to the talk about talks this week. In London, Downing Street says it wants to negotiate. In Brussels, the commission says it is open to “clarification”. In Dublin, the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, says: “Our position is that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is closed but there is always room for talks and negotiations.” In Belfast, if the Sunday Times is right, the DUP – yes, the DUP – says it is prepared to consider a time-limited backstop.
Think too about the economic and political pressures bearing in again on all the protagonists. In Britain the pound is sliding, the food industry is worrying and, according to the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney,,, business faces an “instantaneous shock” and an early 2020 recession. But while Britain will suffer most from no deal – and heavily Tory and Brexit-supporting regions in England will suffer most of all – others will also suffer. A detailed survey in March by the Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that Ireland in particular will be very hard hit, as will northern France, Belgium and parts of the Netherlands.
This is not to say that there will therefore be a rephrased deal to avert these and other bad consequences. Varadkar in particular is facing an election and has less room for manoeuvre as a result. Nor is it to say that the UK parliament can be relied on to find a way of stopping no deal or that the Tory party would fall into line in sufficient numbers if a deal were on offer.
It is nevertheless possible that time-limiting the backstop in some way – five years is mentioned in some circles – and agreeing to negotiate the issues in the political declaration in good faith over an agreed timetable might, just might, make a difference. It would mean Britain leaving the EU. Johnson could claim a victory. But it could spare a lot of people, businesses, countries including Britain, and even Johnson himself, some real pain in the process. That deal might just be doable even now – whatever Cummings may say..
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist