Each day I peruse the front pages of the London press. From the biggest selling newspapers there is little that might be gleaned of the state of the world. It might be nuclear handbags at dawn for The Donald and L’il Kim (we’re all invited), but The Daily Mail is in a tizz over satnavs. In Brexitland, our fears are smaller.
Little England’s head-in-the sand world view once might have been irritating and comical in roughly equal measure. Not any more.
Leave aside the absolutely massive and urgent questions about the world. The ongoing climate change disaster. An American president of mercurial temperament squaring up to another man-sized toddler with nukes. A vain and preening Tzar playing games with the electoral systems of his neighbours. Bearded fascists intent on turning the cradle of human civilisation into barren sand. Tyrants, warlords, arms dealers, drug dealers. And don’t forget the satnavs. But leave them all aside.
Let’s talk about Brexit.
The tiny, serious parts of the British media that still want to investigate, to interrogate, to report what’s going on with Brexit are doing their best, bless them. I’ve become quite a fan of The New European, the radical, agitprop rag that you can buy in Waitrose. It’s a joy to read Michael White once more, alongside Bonnie Greer, Mitch Benn, and the rehabilitated Alastair Campbell, usually with a side helping of weird, like a long appreciation of Michel Houellebecq by someone who doesn’t like him, or a defence of Baudrillard, or a list of songs with multilingual lyrics. It’s edited by Private Eye’s legendary Phil Space, but he’s doing a cracking job.
Nonetheless, to know what Brexit means, you have to turn to other sources. The Irish press, for pretty obvious reasons, is especially concerned, but all around the world people are looking at the UK and wondering what the hell we think we are doing?
So let’s boil it down to the news about Brexit so far.
We are led by a Prime Minister who has managed to pull off the trick of making cluelessness and bloodlessness look like cool competence to a lot of the electorate. She appears to have started from the position that Brexit is like anything else in politics – however much of a crock of shit it is, chuck enough money at an Aussie spin doctor and it can be finessed away. She is now starting realise that Brexit isn’t like anything else.
Some of the brighter Brexiteers are also showing signs of anxiety. Running a Eurosceptic think tank or pressure group is easy. Hire some superficially clever and tenacious kids, craft some simple narratives, however misleading, that will appeal to the public, and shout down your opponents. Result? A permanent seat on Question Time. So how hard can Brexit be?
Very hard. It turns out that you can’t undermine Michel Barnier by means of barbed Twitter attacks. Guy Verhofstadt isn’t afraid of The Daily Mail. Having a hotline to Rupert Murdoch doesn’t impress Angela Merkel.
It seems you need actual ‘experts’ to do Brexit. Experienced lawyers, diplomats, trade negotiators. And because they are experienced, they are saying, as silkily, as agreeably as their highly paid talents will allow, that Brexit is pure, unadulterated foolishness.
The very best deal conceivably available to the UK upon leaving the EU is a bad deal, far worse than we have at the moment. The most realistic deal will be worse than bad. A bad deal will be catastrophic, an ongoing, unending nightmare.
This message, it seems, is beginning to be understood in government.
So what can they do about it?
That’s the question. The obvious answer – tell the public the truth – is inconvenient. Theresa May inherited No 10 because of Brexit, and she is temperamentally unsuited to putting national interest before personal and party interest. And May and her government are 100% pure politicians. They must devote their energies not to the fantasy of Brexit as the road to dazzling economic success and social contentment, but to playing the politics.
And that politics isn’t even the politics of fooling the electorate (Mr. Dacre and Mr. Murdoch will look after that side of things). The only politics that matters for Brexit is the politics of internal party management for the Conservative Party.
Hence the waste of money and the international derision that is a jumped-up former GP “sharing values” with the Killer in Manilla. Keeping IDS happy and on-side is far more important than bringing in the Fenland harvest. Sedating an over-excited Owen Paterson matters more than the workers of Nissan or Jaguar-Land Rover.
This is what May means when she says of Brexit, “we will make a success of it.” Not a “global Britain”, not a rising “Anglosphere”, not a land of milk and honey, or of cake and prosecco.
Brexit means keeping the right of the Tory Party happy. The price tag? £60 billion and rising. But it’s “the will of the people”….