Brexit Peace, Election Suicide
IF A TREE FALLS DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WOODS AND THERE IS NO ONE TO HEAR IT, DOES BREXIT STILL MEAN BREXIT?
The Brexit night vote sleepover party seems a long time ago. After the party, among the pizza boxes and beer cans, the subsiding Mount Rushmore blancmange of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove disappeared. Dave immediately cleared off and Gove and Boris left before dawn. Poor Theresa was left scouring the floor with a black bin liner. That has been the Brexit aftermath – salvaging and distancing, which later turned into spinning and branding.
So, if a tree falls down in the middle of a forest and there’s no one to hear it, does Brexit still mean Brexit? ‘Brexit’ – the word crunches in our mouths and insists upon depth, but what is Brexit? As portmanteau constructions are apt to do, it initially seemed to trivialise – indeed emblematic of the early humour attached to the idea that Britain could, indeed, exit the EU. Brexit means Britain exiting the EU and abandoning the privileges and duties that that entails. Could that be a bit in, a bit out? An associate member with occasional membership – a kind of Hokey Cokey membership? Talk has focused on these questions and turned Brexit into a journey rather than a destination, a negotiation rather than a decision.
However, talk of ‘negotiations’ regarding Britain’s future EU involvement and benefits have been but tumbleweed in an EU ghost town. Everyone is eventually confronted with the realisation that even though your family plays monopoly like this and that it’s better, the rules are written down and non-negotiable.
Theresa May is not to be blamed for this situation, it’s not her doing, but the failure to account for the eventuality of an ‘out’ vote seems to have been real. Consequently, the Prime Minister was in the position of having to haggle for access to the top table of EU single market spoils whilst insisting on money’s movement over people’s. To the EU, the other 27 countries, this is like stopping your membership of a golf club and then assuming that it would be okay to continue parking your Lexus there at weekends. This became Brexit – a farce of face, a farce of delayed non-gratification. Theresa May, ghosted in Europe, in turn, ghosted the British public with the occasional deflective, motivational comment. Painted into a corner, May has tried to make the best of the situation.
The PM’s desktop groaned with files propping up the view that the UK’s exit from the EU would be ‘smooth’ when in truth ‘hard’ Brexit realities are looming as it seems that Angela Merkel and others are keen that the UK not be allowed to ‘cherry pick’ those desirable features that are baked into the EU cake. As religious observers are often accused of ‘cherry picking’ from their beliefs, the EU appears to be enforcing scriptural literalism on the UK. The body of beliefs that buttress the EU are necessary conditions and indivisible. The four key planks being the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital. The UK feared economic aftershocks, and given the country voted for change, and May recognises the emphasis on immigration, What Britain needed was a plan. What plan there was had the heft and integrity of an umbrella turning inside out in intermediate wind and rain. Sir Ivan Rogers – until recently Britain’s representative at the EU – quit his post early, commenting on the muddled thinking, lack of strategy and the ‘Panglossian cliches’ that surrounded the issue.
Well, with all the the talk of EU membership in all but name continuing, in her speech on January 18th the prime minister confirmed that Britain “cannot possibly” remain within the single market and that remaining in it would be “like not leaving the EU at all”. Mrs May promised to push for “freest possible trade” and urged the British public to trust in her aspirations for Britain which include pushing for greater trade with other areas around the world. The PM also pledged that parliament would get to vote on the final agreement between the EU and the UK. As a British man living in Madrid (Spain is the number one EU destination for British citizens living outside the UK with nearly four times as many Brits as second place France) the security of Brits outside the UK is a priority that she pledges to safeguard. The PM prioritises the same for those EU nationals in the UK.
Theresa May has been compared to Henry VIII – that other breaker with European associative doctrine – for her heavy style – reportedly isolating herself from her colleagues. Still, in modern times, no one has been Home Secretary for longer and she does seem refreshingly less careerist than most of her colleagues. Downing Street insiders are said to have seen a clear move away from the ‘sofa government’ style of Blair that was continued by David Cameron and to a style which focuses on fewer interactions with a top few. She was apparently nicknamed ‘Submarine’ May due to her inscrutability on any matters extra to her former Home Office purview. She is to be credited for taking the job at a time of intense pressure and uncertainty in the UK. May, who wasn’t an advocate for leaving, once commented that “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. Inscrutable, assertive, dutiful. How would she lead?
With this stew of Brexiteers, Remoaners, left and right swirling, article 50 was triggered, like a count down to some yet to be built rocket. Perhaps the UK simply is a figure walking out a door marked exit. Like Robbie Williams, leaving Take That, will the UK go on to be successful? And like Robbie, will the UK return one day?
Well, ‘refreshingly less careerist’ indeed – ‘strong and stable’ was the mantra, the continuous, robotic cliche that like telegram English had the fluency of a toddler and the primal appeal of a Macdonald’s campaign. The political landscape, seemingly free of obstacles, May called a general election and smugly refused to debate other leaders and even avoided speaking publicly without straying outside the syllabic limits of a haiku. With a huge lead in the polls – large enough even to tease the return of fox hunting – the Conservatives shied away from the cameras and made the election about the character of the two central leaders – she good, he bad etc. Using the right wing press as a shovel and shrinking Jeremy Corbyn’s image to that of a woolly terrorist sympathiser who is as familiar with humous as he is with Hamas, it was May vs. Corbyn. ‘Strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ became the scrabble confetti of the campaign and it seemed people preferred the latter as a title for a novel that more accurately reflected the mood and bad behaviour of the Tory campaign. The magical thinking of the right’s continued attacks on Jeremy Corbyn was astounding. ‘Fantasy economics’, ‘magic money tree’ (Labour’s manifesto was apparently fully costed) and the like unintentionally reminded the electorate of Lewis Carrol and not the ineptitude it intended to conjure. It seemed the bullying of the Trump campaign had been absorbed by the Conservatives and contemptuous post-truth platitudes, regurgitated, became the wood shaving kindling to a larger bonfire of Tory bullshit.
Corbyn, Trident rattled in his face like a rusty charity collection tin, was pilloried for not showing willing to kill millions of people and painted as both pacifist and anti-patriotic. May, the firm hand, after the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and then London, vowed to upscale the efforts to catch the terrorists – effectively pledging to curtail human rights to protect human rights. The angry anaconda absorbing its own tail for its own survival. Jeremy Corbyn raised the question of Britain’s own role in seeding terrorism and many saw this as a treasonous thought not worth consideration. Others saw leadership in his observations, hardly controversial in the intelligence community, and saw his anti-war stance as having the integrity and honesty that the establishment politicians lacked – particularly since Britain’s valued customer, Saudi Arabia, continued using bombs on neighbouring Yemen.
The Tories unraveled. People began to see through their flailing attempts at keeping their hands on power at any cost while Labour’s appeal mushroomed. Corbyn was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Stephen Hawking and Danny de Vito. The prime minister could only count on Katie Hopkins, Jim Davidson and John McCririck. Corbyn peered out from T shirts and gave speeches at rock concerts where his name was sung over the riff of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’. The right turned their attention to Diane Abbott and John Macdonnell and lacking the policy high ground and clinging to a diminished lead, they threw muck around even more. Boris Johnson further proved himself to be a man with all the grace and poise of a dog itching his nose, almost starting a fight live on air when the northern labour MP he was trying to outshout wouldn’t yield to his hand waving.
Brexit was reduced to a bumper sticker on the spluttering Conservative jalopy that seemed more and more likely to be heading straight to the scrapyard. And it became clear that the country didn’t fully grasp what Brexit really meant. Because they weren’t told the specifics in June 2016. Theresa May’s gamble hinged on the public thinking that Corbyn would be a poor negotiator in Brussels. When the emptiness of this claim became clearer the Tory artillery was spent, outdated, not fit for purpose.
We woke up to a hung parliament and the state of the mess David Cameron and Theresa May had inflicted on their party and the country. The infighting that was provoked by the donuts at Ukip outflanking them in the area of Tory policy which flirts with far right misanthropy – see Cameron’s heartwarming “bunch of migrants” comments – resulted in a referendum that may prove pointless and a general election that acts as unnecessary plot twist in the Tory saga.
We’ll see a Labour government next time. Polls suggest that had the election been run a few weeks later we’d see a clear Corbyn victory. New Labour characters have shown contrition over their previous views that the leader would ruin the party. It has emerged that Ed Milliband’s intended policy platform for the 2015 election was in part overruled by Ed Balls and others who saw it as too red. Corbyn taught Labour that if you can’t change the wind, change the sail and by controlling the election narrative he showed that there’s and appetite for change and a sense of injustice in Britain. Policies that affect real people are on the table again, and the waffle and evasion of recent political discourse might just have run its course.
Andrew James Ball