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The inside story of the Number 10 split over the PM's Brexit strategy

Boris Johnson with his chief strategist Dominic Cummings outside Downing Street
Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

He famously told Downing Street staff to be “cool like Fonzies” in the face of mounting political pressure over Brexit, but Dominic Cummings’ somewhat hot-headed approach to the EU negotiations appears to be heralding less than happy days at Number 10.

With rumours of a rift with Boris Johnson’s chief of staff Sir Eddie Lister beginning to emerge after what is now widely accepted to be Cummings’ explosive memo declaring the Brexit negotiations dead on Monday, there are genuine fears the former Vote Leave boss’s quest to honour the referendum result could end up destroying the Conservative Party in the process. 

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister appeared to row back on Cummings’ suggestion that the Tories would have to fight the next general election on a no-deal pledge to “marginalise” the Brexit Party in a move that prompted anger among Tories in the Commons tearoom.

Mr Johnson is understood to have reassured Damian Green, chairman of an 80-strong One Nation caucus that the party’s next manifesto will still promise to get a Brexit deal, not an automatic no deal.

Tellingly, while Lister was said to be at the meeting, Cummings - who has been highly critical of Tory MPs in the past - was not. This morning a Downing Street spokesman told the Daily Telegraph that "all Brexit options" were being kept on the table. 

Credit: Yui Mok/PA

It comes after cabinet ministers including Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan voiced concern about Cummings’ combative approach amid reports of a “parallel government” being run out of Number 10 by Lister.

The Prime Minister’s top team is said to be split over how the Conservatives should campaign when the public goes to the polls as early as next month, with Cummings’ old Vote Leave contingency seemingly willing to deliver Brexit by any means necessary, versus those who “want Boris’s biography to have more than a Brexit chapter.”

As one Downing Street insider put it: “One view is that the Conservative Party has to survive this in tact - the opposing view is if we don’t get Brexit done, there won’t be a Conservative Party. There is no personal animosity between Dom and Eddie but it’s fair to say Eddie is despairing about the potential damage being done to the long term prospects of a Boris Johnson premiership.”

Rumours of all the remainers in cabinet being on “resignation watch”, appear exaggerated, however. While Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Lewis is undoubtedly the most wobbly along with Morgan and curiously, defence secretary Ben Wallace, described as “strangely shirty with the PM” at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, a source close to Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “It’s tin hat time and Matt’s got a big tin hat. The strategy is go for a deal but leave without a deal if we can't get a deal."

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was also said to be on the verge of quitting although one insider pointed out that he was “already in a precarious position” over his legal advice on the “unlawful” prorogation

Mr Johnson appears to have placated ministers by describing the increasingly tense political ping-pong between the UK and the EU as the “compression phase” of the negotiations but his admission that he had no knowledge of the Cummings memo in advance of its publication in The Spectator on Monday night has raised eyebrows about the leave svengali’s increasingly bullish behaviour.

His recent actions have called into question whether his approach is proving more anarchic than strategic amid confusion over whether he acting on licence to be the ‘bad cop' to Mr Johnson’s 'good cop' in the eyes of the MPs the PM needs to convince to vote for his Brexit deal.

“Even Vote Leave purists like (Downing Street’s director of communications) Lee Cain despair when Dom heads into parliament for a chat with journalists,” said one Number 10 source. “There is a sense that he behaves like this to take the heat of Boris but also a very real impression that he doesn’t give a f*ck about the political consequences of what he is doing.”

The Prime Minister’s political secretary Danny Kruger has been caught in the middle of the maelstrom. “His job is to look after Parliament and MPs and every time he makes progress garnering Labour or Tory rebel support, Dom puts out a briefing and burns all the bridges,” added the source.

Spartans, who have traditionally been wary of Cummings after he was disparaging about members of the ERG during the referendum campaign, describing them as “useful idiots” among other insults, begrudgingly support his clean Brexit stance yet resent him for his unwillingness to form a pact with Nigel Farage. “This is a Cummings inspired sh*t show,” one senior Tory told the Daily Telegraph.  

Meanwhile moderates fear a Faragian approach will “completely alienate the business minded, capital owning party electorate we depend on for votes.” As another MP put it: “This high risk strategy could leave us in the hands of a coalition of chaos lead by Jeremy Corybn and Jo Swinson, a second referendum and probably no Brexit at all”.

With Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) seemingly at odds with Cummings over how an election should be fought, all eyes are on campaign chief Isaac Levido, Sir Lynton Crosby’s protege, who was appointed to succeed him in August.

A former strategist for the right-leaning Liberal Party in his native Australia, Levido is overseeing the government's political strategy and campaigning not just from Downing Street but also CCHQ. 

“This is the next big battle,” said one Downing Street source. “Is Levido going to taking his lead from Cummings or CCHQ?” 

Having postponed a major operation to take up his role as ‘assistant to the Prime Minister’, Cummings was never supposed to be sticking around after October 31.

But with the prospect of an Article 50 extension looming ever closer, few would bet against the man who told the British public to ‘take back control’ doubling down on his pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’.