Fri, 12 May 2023 at 3:06 pm BST
Seven years after the country voted to leave the EU, the daily arguments over what precisely that meant and how precisely to do it still have the freshness of a vegetable rotting in a Great British field for want of any Great Brit to pick it. Brexit is a journey, not a destination – like a late-night trip on TransPennine Express, or “life” on Instagram.
Incredibly, the Conservative party has now found yet another way to divide itself over the issue. Yes, even its splits have splits. Brexiteers themselves have now subdivided into diehards and compromisers. Expect both those categories to subdivide again soon, as we hurtle inexorably towards the logical end of the Brexit process: hundreds of individual politicians screaming into hundreds of individual TV cameras that only they can fix it.
One of these will be the last face you see before you die. I don’t mean in the traditional sense you often see that trope deployed: implying you’ll be cowering at the homicidal hand of the maniac in question. I just mean that many years from now, at the natural end of your life, shivering in some tarpaulin-tented outpost of the care home system that all this sort of stuff prevented politicians from ever fixing, one or other of them will be on the telly as you rattle out your last breath then get exported to a far-flung emerging-market country for cremation, as part of the exciting new trade deal worth 0.000003% to UK GDP that was signed by Sixtus Rees-Mogg in the wake of the second water wars. Or as Theresa May put it, a full three imploded prime ministerships ago: “Brexit means Brexit, and we ARE going to make a success of it.”
Anyway, the latest form the forever war has achieved is a row between the Conservative government, which has U-turned on repealing every single piece of retained EU law, and various hardliners from its own party who think they should stick to the original plan. Compromisers are epitomised by trade secretary Kemi Badenoch. I don’t need to fill you in on Kemi. For much of the past year, she has been the latest amusingly overhyped act being pushed as the next big thing by the Conservative A&R department. Every time she takes the stage it feels like some middle-aged guy in an ill-advised deep V is going to try to stick a coke spoon up your nose while rasping in your ear that she’s “the real deal”. But look, as the trademarked Most Effective Minister in Government, Michael Gove’s presumably worth listening to.
Sunak had promised to repeal about 4,000 EU laws in a leadership campaign video, complete with a big shredder and soundtracked by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. This promise was unpromised this week by Badenoch, first via the pages of the Daily Telegraph, then subsequently at the dispatch box, where she revealed a mere 600 laws would go. People on all sides were incensed by various aspects of this, so Badenoch declared she was “very pleased to be taking the pragmatic middle ground”. And, like me, you will be very pleased at the notion of having to take a lesson in pragmatism from actual Kemi Badenoch. Seriously, though, I do feel as though I should be more personally drawn to Kemi – she’s terminally sarcastic and seems to think her job is to write newspaper columns.
But her about-face has incensed some of her colleagues, notably Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose calico underthings are in quite the twist. How is Rees-Mogg still a feature of public life? In any just world, he would by now be understudying some of the furniture in an am-dram production of The Mousetrap; instead, he was on hand to tell the BBC of Sunak: “He has broken his word. This is very serious in my view.” Mm.
It was Jacob, of course, who was accused of (and denied) misleading the late Queen over what turned out to be the unlawful prorogation of parliament. Far be it from any of us to preempt the history books, but that’s probably a worse whopper than a tweeted campaign video for the leadership election Sunak lost. We should also remember that when he was made Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob was immediately reduced to asking Sun readers how to do his job, requesting that they sent in ideas of EU laws we could scrap. The benefits of this “initiative” never materialised, though Rees-Mogg did at one point last year cite the fact he had headed off a 2% rise in the cost of fish fingers. (Thanks to our G7-beating inflation rate, alas, fish fingers are currently retailing for at least 15% more than they were back then.)
Next to line up against Badenoch was fellow ERG all-star Mark Francois, another name none of us should ever have had to learn unless he was our MP, but who – owing to the interminable Brexit saga – has now clocked up more TV hours than Phillip Schofield (and may even outlast him). Badenoch shot back that the ERG are “all talk” – a disparagement that hovers dangerously close to describing them as “all mouth and no trousers”. I was reminded the other day that insanity became so normalised during the Brexit wars that in 2019 Mark had a staring match with the novelist Will Self on a lunchtime BBC politics show, apparently prompted by a green room argument about the size of Mark’s penis.
In other signs of rude political health, this weekend sees hundreds of Tory activists head to Bournemouth for a conference organised by the Conservative Democratic Organisation. This is a sort of Continuity Boris campaign, spearheaded by the likes of serial wingnut and ex-MEP David Campbell Bannerman, and the former disgraced Tory treasurer and Tory megadonor Lord Cruddas. Cruddas is one of the stupidest people ever to wear ermine – even counting the baroque genetic disasters of the 18th and 19th centuries – yet persists in the delusion that he’s a power player. He is not alone among the fractious warlords of the Tory party. Having lost more than 1,000 seats to progressive parties in last week’s local elections, all kinds of geniuses have alighted on the only logical answer: move rightwards.
Meanwhile, Brexit still has to get done, or redone, or undone some more. The grim irony is that nothing could have made the British people more “left behind” than the Brexit process itself – almost seven long years of doing barely anything else (bar weathering a deadly global plague), while other countries got on with having a life, a growth plan and the first clue about where they realistically fitted into the complex geopolitics of the modern world. None of these was the path our politicians chose. I guess you reap what you sow – unless, that is, you leave even that to rot in the ground.