Britain's Brexit delirium has an upside: politicians are being exposed for who they really are

The absurd contradictions of our political times have acted like an X-ray. This offers a crumb of comfort

August 03, 2017
Photo: Antonio Calanni/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Antonio Calanni/PA Wire/PA Images

In the last 12 months, British politics has tipped into the realm of the absurd. Like a jelly gently sliding off a plate, it has wobbled, paused and then succumbed to the inevitable, undignified interaction with the floor. Splat.

And in another demonstration of her natural flair for making things much much worse, the prime minister has decided to take a three-week holiday. The result has been a less than dignified wrestling match among members of the cabinet. And at the centre of the storm is, of course, Europe.

The Europe issue, that catalyst of British political absurdity for almost four decades, seems to be approaching its peak. Everything is now about Europe—the British body politic points in one direction only, poised to perform an as-yet undefined act on behalf of an electorate that necessarily doesn’t know what it voted for.

And still the anti-European nationalists are busier than ever in pushing the idea that the hub—Britain—can leave its network—the EU—with no serious consequences. What’s more, a separation deal could be negotiated with the EU in a period of political time almost scaramuccian in its brevityLiam Fox recently reassured his public that a deal with the EU would be the “easiest in history.” With this splendidly breezy remark, Fox overlooked the fact that the government is yet to negotiate a Brexit agreement even with itself.

"Like a jelly gently sliding off a plate, British politics has wobbled, paused and then succumbed to the inevitable, undignified interaction with the floor"
And those internal conservative disagreements are getting very heated—the look of horror on the faces of pro-Brexit MPs when they hear the words “Soft Brexit” is really quite something. Their deep fear that an attempt is under way to dilute the “people’s will” only fuels the animus against Philip Hammond, the chief Cabinet proponent of a post-Brexit transition period. His reasons are essentially those of an accountant: that a breathing space would give Britain more time to adjust economically to the tricky task ahead. However, his opponents—Fox, Johnson, Davis, Gove et al—don’t see the task ahead as being tricky. What they see is a weasely attempt to dodge Brexit altogether. A recent Ukip petition to have Hammond sacked attracted over 30,000 signatures. We must crack on. Think less. Act more. Consequences? What consequences?

British holidaymakers stuck at European airports this summer, waiting to pass through the new stringent border checks have learned a thing or two about what the consequences of Brexit might look like. There are few things more likely to bring a group of Brits to the boil than an hour or five in a foreign airport queueing for a turn at a single glass passport control booth. And yet beefed up border checks have been in force across Europe since March, as a response to recent terror attacks.

It is entirely in keeping with our absurd new times that the people most outraged by those tougher border controls are—of course—those most in favour of tougher border controls. “SHAMBLES AT EU AIRPORTS” bellowed the Daily Mail. “Holidaymakers queue for hours as Brussels imposes tough passport checks,” it cried, before adding the lethal kicker, “and British families suffer most."

And if the borders continue to harden in the way the Brexit mob has wanted all along, then the complications will only intensify and the level of absurdity will increase. The M20 down to Dover will finally succumb and turn into a lorry park, as hauliers wait their turn to undergo the mandatory customs checks. Flinty-eyed passport controllers in Calais will demand to know the purpose of your visit. The booze cruise will be no more. And all of these things will be excoriated most savagely by precisely the people who caused them to happen.
"How quickly we have come to see through our current crop of leaders: the absurd contradictions of our times have acted like an X-ray"
Britain’s own brush with farce has been given extra zest by the US President, who recently emerged momentarily from the booming operatic disaster of the Trump White House to promise a “very big and exciting,” trade deal for Britain. It is uncertain whether something that Trump regards as “exciting” is to be welcomed. But even the possibility of his insertion in the Brexit debate carries the promise of a whole new level of pandemonium.

All very worrying. But such absurdity does have the benefit of being extremely revealing. All modern politicians are surrounded by courtiers whose job is to shape their image. But the rough-and-tumble times in which we live seem to have stripped away almost all of that artifice. The crude and entirely undignified ambitions of the new crop of nationalist politicians have been revealed with startling vividness. Trump is the embodiment of this. The same can be said of Gove and Johnson, whose masks slipped during the Conservative leadership race to reveal a slavering lust for power quite at odds with their jolly media-friendly personae.

There is a great advantage to seeing your politicians as they really are, of having their weaknesses and contradictions set out before you. What turned many people off Blair, before the disaster of Iraq, was his over-use of presentational polish. By the end of it, the sheen was too bright and too perfect—he was like the surface of a conker. Compare that with Theresa—with her control-freakery, her naughty wheat field, her little tear.

How quickly we have come to see through our current crop of leaders. The absurd contradictions of our times have acted like an X-ray. Perhaps one crumb of comfort is that their many, many failings are so open to view. If only the consequences weren’t so serious, we might be able to laugh about it.