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There’s always someone else to blame for the Brexit mess

18 October 2018

12:45 PM

18 October 2018

12:45 PM

In a dismally competitive field, you might think Tory MP Andrew Bridgen must be the short-priced favourite for the next edition of the Deluded Brexiteer stakes. This newly-established classic always attracts a large field and the MP for North West Leicestershire’s suggestion that he, an Englishman, has the right to pop over to the Republic of Ireland and demand, and expect to be granted, an Irish passport shows that Mr Bridgen is in fine, early-season, form. He is tough to beat.

And yet his success cannot be taken for granted. This is a wide-open race. Consider, for instance, the credentials of Andrea Jenkyns. The member for Morley and Outwood declares that ‘It is better to go down fighting and honouring the democratic decision of our people than to be long remembered for waving a white flag and surrendering to EU demands’. And then there is Steve Baker, champion of the backwood Brexiteers, who deems the Maastricht Treaty negotiations – in which the UK government actually achieved its goals – a ‘debacle’ and considers ‘our predicament today very substantially John Major’s burden’. It is always – always – someone else’s fault.

This, yet again, is Brexit as rapture. Speaking in tongues and handling snakes will be next. In truth, an appetite for the cleansing power of fire is not restricted to Leavers. There are plenty of people who, despite having no affection for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, would not be overly disappointed to see this iteration of the Conservative party thrown into a furnace. Brexit makes everyone – or at least everyone who is still paying attention – an extremist. Burn them all.

Ephemera abounds and because the government’s ambitions are fundamentally and irredeemably contradictory, trivia often supplants substance. Thus Jacob Rees-Mogg, a troll in pinstripes, suggests putting Margaret Thatcher on the new Bank of England £50 note would show Johnny Euro what’s what and all that. Hence the ongoing campaign in the Daily Telegraph for a new royal yacht which, mysteriously, will demonstrate to all unfortunate foreigners that Britain is back and greater than ever. In these circumstances, it’s only reasonable for Boris Johnson to despair that accepting a negotiated deal on the terms previously advanced by the UK government itself would constitute the gravest national ‘humiliation’ since Suez. I mean, perhaps he’s right but if he is it’s for precisely the opposite reasons to those advanced by – eek – the erstwhile foreign secretary.

Note, however, how what was previously exemplary must now be considered national surrender and humiliation. Norway and Switzerland, once two shining examples of a prosperous life to be enjoyed outside the European Union, are now to be considered puny vassal states whose colonisation by Brussels would shame them if only they – the poor things – possessed the reserves of pluck and vim the dear lord has granted to this sceptred isle. Remaining part of the customs union is now, we are told, ‘purgatory’. Come off it.

And that, I am afraid, is one way you may measure the extent to which Brexit is a bloody long con. The goalposts are always being shifted and this time we can’t even blame the badgers. It is not, let’s be frank, about prosperity so much as it is a means, at least within the Tory party, of satisfying some atavistic desire for ‘control’ that’s likely to prove stunningly illusory. Peel back the curtain, and you discover there is no plan. Europe has ruined – or helped ruin – the last three Conservative prime ministers and, Bourbon-like, the party intends to destroy a fourth because, hell, this is what the Conservative and Unionist party does.

None of that allows Mrs May to escape her own share of responsibility for this fiasco. Like her predecessor she made the mistake of prizing Tory unity too highly and failing to recognise that, on this issue, unity is not just impossible but also, in the end, undesirable.

The Brexiteer suggestion that if only there was more grip, more toughness, more clarity in Downing Street all would be fine is, as always, revealing. Boris Johnson and others routinely invoke the confidence fairies as though wishing very hard can make those dreams come true. It is a Tory variant on the crippling Labour belief that the party loses elections because it is insufficiently left-wing.

No Brexit is fast, clean, or pure enough for the true believers. That is their prerogative, of course, but it’s a revolutionary position in which facts or, if you prefer, objective probability must not be granted any credence. Every single credible analysis of a no-deal Brexit suggests the United Kingdom will be impoverished by that manner of departure. They only differ on how much. Now, perhaps these estimates are mistaken but they are the best available evidence we have.

Not that this matters. According to the ex-ministers who have written to the Prime Minister today, ‘Now is the opportunity for the government to reset, to stop seeing Brexit as a damage limitation exercise, and instead to deliver the Brexit which people voted for’. We are large, they are small and by jove we shall make a success of Brexit because that is what we are going to do. The aspiration is what counts, not the detail. Yet again, the fanatics make the mistake of assuming their preferred vision of Brexit is shared by the people who voted for Brexit despite there being hopelessly little evidence to support this assertion.

They remind me of those poor Americans who insisted that the debacle of Vietnam could have been avoided if only the United States had shown greater willpower and a more ruthless determination to exert its will upon that poor, benighted, country. Having committed themselves to the project, the only explanation for its failure lay in the sorry lack of commitment on the part of others. The uselessness and fatally-flawed nature of the enterprise, fundamental in so many ways, could never be admitted. Victory was stolen or sacrificed or abandoned and it was, when you thought about it, so very unfair.

As then, so now with Brexit. The fault may never, ever, lie with those who suggested it would be a cheerfully simple and mutually advantageous business. It must always lie with those who worried, correctly as it turns out, it might prove just a little more complicated than the fairy-worshipping cultists suggested.

Pursuing a least-bad Brexit is not, I suppose, the kind of cry that will stir many minds or rally all that many troops. It does have the advantage, on the other hand, of being a properly and honestly Tory attitude to a set of circumstances that may not be as desirable as they might have initially seemed. Reality is not as we might wish it to be but Tories, more than anyone else, should understand that. Wearily, perhaps, but that resignation might be accompanied by a measured sense of realism underpinned by the conviction that, above almost all else, the key consideration now is how to avoid making a difficult situation very much worse.

But then there are not so many Tories left in this edition of the Conservative party, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that Toryism seems a minority view these days.

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