If you wish to understand this government you might begin with Robert Conquest’s third law of politics. Namely, that ‘The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies’. This is certainly a more plausible hypothesis than any obviously available alternative. Indeed, there are times when you begin to think this government’s mission must be to persuade us that, contrary to the evidence hitherto presented, a government led by Jeremy Corbyn might be no bad thing. Or, at any rate, no worse than the government we have now.
Take Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, for instance, notionally two of Brexit’s ‘Big Four’ though increasingly, like Arsenal, relegated to sixth place. Let us, for a change, begin with Dr Fox. Today he warns that the Confederation of British Industry, that its preference for something as close to the status quo as possible risks leaving the UK ‘with one arm tied behind our back’ when it comes to negotiating future trade deals. Doc Fox will not be leashed like this; nor can he be muzzled even though you might think it’s in the government’s own interests that he be so restrained.
Besides, the UK needs to look at new models (something upon which, as it happens, Jeremy Corbyn agrees) and seek new ‘multi-country alliances of the like-minded’. It would be churlish, I suppose, to note that the EU could be considered a ‘multi-country alliance of the like-minded’ so we will not detain ourselves by doing so.
Now the CBI may be mistaken (such things are not unheard of) but, more and more, you gain the unfortunate impression that everybody’s out of step but our Liam. At the latest count, give or take a few insurrectionists elsewhere, the list of internal saboteurs threatening Brexit includes the judiciary, parliament, the Irish, the Scots, London, the BBC. Doubtless fluoridated water – currently available to around six million people – will be the next corruption of Brexit purity.
If Dr Fox was today’s starter, Boris Johnson provided the main course. Speaking on the Today programme, Johnson suggested that since ‘there’s no border between Camden and Westminster’ all those people worrying about the difficulty of solving the Irish border problem are failing to see the bigger picture. Get with it, people! This is ‘a very relevant comparison’, the foreign secretary said, because of course operating a congestion charge inside London is just the same as operating an international frontier.
Even so, though doubtless inadvertently, Johnson highlighted one of the contradictions at the heart of the Brexit project. The government wants ‘frictionless’ borders in matters of trade but hard borders when it comes to the question of people moving from one jurisdiction to another. Remarkably, nearly two years after the vote to leave the EU, it still seems unaware of this contradiction, blithely assuming that wishing hard enough and putting sufficient faith in the confidence fairies will deliver cake-cake outcomes for all.
Well, it’s a nice idea. It would be nice if it worked but there has to be some small possibility matters may be a little more complicated than that.
But just as a truffle pig that’s lost its sense of smell may still occasionally root up a prize, so the foreign secretary can stumble upon a truth. He did so this morning when he expressed the hope that one day we might no longer be talking about Brexit. This is something with which many people will agree and for good reason.
Indeed, I suspect there are many voters who have tired of Brexit to the point where they just wish it to be done with once and for all. I fancy they are less concerned by the type of Brexit than by accomplishing it and moving on to something, anything, else. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this is where the centre of political gravity currently lies.
You get a sense, too, that some of the most ardent Brexiteers fear this too. Hence the sudden uptick of thunderous warnings about the disastrous consequences of a ‘Brexit in name only’. This, as Johnson says, would somehow make Britain a ‘colony’ of the EU and must therefore be resisted by a new anti-imperial alliance of cross-party freedom-lovers.
But, as it happens, I suspect a BINO outcome might suit many people. A Brexit In Name Only would satisfy the urge to get out – an urge that must be recognised and accommodated – while doing as little as possible to actually change anything. Such an outcome might be sub-optimal for everyone; it would also give almost everyone something.
In that respect, Brexit is an itch that must be scratched but, even as we do so, we can recognise that the forces that drove a Brexit vote were not always intimately connected to anything terribly European. It was many things: a cry of rage from neglected communities, certainly, but also a matter of Home Counties harrumphing. A vision for a new liberal international order for some, but also the largest protest vote ever seen in Britain. It was about Brexit in some ways but also, radically, not at all about Brexit in many others.
The Labour party may be split between its leadership, its parliamentary representatives, and its supporters but Corbyn appears to have recognised the fundamental reality that Brexit is really as much a proxy for myriad other concerns as it is a question of quitting the European Union. Indeed, leaving the EU might be seen as just the symptom, not the cause of the complaint.
Purists (on either side, it might be admitted) cannot see it like this. Hence the ratcheting-up of demands for, on the Leave side, an ever purer Brexit and, on the Remain side of the dispute, the ever-greater conviction Brexit will be a disaster of historic proportions. BINO is not a rallying call for the ages but, amidst this tumult, it might have to do.
Dr Fox may not wish to have one arm tied when he goes in to bat for Britain but, increasingly, the choice between this Conservative party and this Labour party seems akin to wagering on one of those Victorian cricket matches in which a team of one-armed men took on a team of one-legged cricketers. A spectacle, I suppose, but not an entirely edifying one.