What was Brexit like? America’s declaration of independence? A man leaving a golf club but demanding to still be allowed into the bar? Over the years, I went through a few analogies, but the one that persisted was of a married man who has for years enjoyed casually flirting with a work colleague. One evening he makes his traditional half-hearted pass, and instead of rolling her eyes, she replies: “Go on, then”. A month later, he’s living out of his car and negotiating through lawyers to see his children one weekend a month, and he can’t really tell you how it happened.
On the inside, covering every tiny move in the story, it was mainly exhausting. I escaped Long Covid in 2020, but I may have Long Brexit. Just thinking about the endless days and nights covering this vote or those talks makes me feel ill, overwhelmed by a mix of exhaustion and anxiety.
Mainly, it was stupid. I don’t so much mean the vote to leave as everything that followed. Unutterably, unfathomably, unbelievably stupid.
Although it coincided with, and possibly depended on, a separate episode of Labour madness, Brexit was fundamentally a Tory spasm, a mid-life crisis for a party that seemed to have decided it was tired of being sensible.
There are so many stupid moments, far too many of them to fit into a single article or even magazine. I really can’t pick a favourite, but as an exemplar stupid, let’s take the Malthouse Compromise.
Who can face going into the details again? All you need to know is that for a few days in 2019, we all worked late into the night writing about negotiations that the Conservative Party was conducting with itself to solve the Irish Border problem. The result was the Malthouse Compromise, and they were all so pleased with it. They presented it to the press – in the middle of the night, of course – with all the excitement of a three-year-old bringing home an iced biscuit from preschool: Look, Mummy, we’ve solved the Irish border!
Had they, though? Well, the compromise rested on what The Guardian carefully called “as yet unknown technology”. So the answer, it rapidly became clear, was “not as such”.
But that didn’t matter, explained actual members of parliament, adults who had stood for election and somehow won. The important point was that the Conservative Party was in agreement. Brexit could now go forward. And when the people they were supposed to be negotiating with, the European Union, said that they needed something slightly more concrete than crayon drawings of imaginary sky computers, these same members of parliament, some of them people who had been in the Cabinet, the actual Cabinet, told us that the EU was being unreasonable.
It was all like that: people too lazy to do the reading explaining to you that something or other wasn’t beyond the wit of man, although it was clearly beyond the wit of this specific man. How hard could it be, we would be asked by someone for whom it was obviously much too hard.
Not only could they not agree what kind of Brexit they wanted, they couldn’t even agree on the terms of the question. Would making it harder to trade with the EU damage the economy, as most people agreed, or would it in fact boost growth, as this one internet site that someone had sent them a link to claimed?
For many Tories, being Eurosceptic was just one of those things you had to say to get selected
With visible facts and geography stacked against them, the Tories over time retreated into the invisible realm. What mattered was belief, faith in Brexit. It wasn’t enough to believe that Brexit should happen because people had voted for it, Conservatives were now required to believe that it was a good idea in its own terms. And not just Conservatives: everyone in public life – civil servants, judges, journalists – was interrogated on their allegiance to the One True Brexit (Whatever It Turns Out To Be). People who talked too loudly about facts on the ground were denounced on newspaper front pages, and sent death threats.
The problem was, they had never meant to win, any more than the man heating a Pot Noodle in his Vauxhall Zafira meant to cheat on his wife. For some of them it was a way to get back at David Cameron, for others it was a way to position themselves to succeed him. For many Tories, being Eurosceptic was just one of those things you had to say to get selected, like clicking “I agree” on the legal bit when you install an app. I mean, no one holds you to that stuff, right?
Lately, the tone has changed a little. The government still refuses to talk about the coming economic damage, but it’s tacitly accepted that it’s real. It is hard to take the current Brexit battle seriously, after a year in which Covid has exposed the pointlessness of trying to pretend that we don’t live in a complex, connected world, and indeed revealed some of the benefits of the modern world that so many Tories spend so much time denouncing.
Perhaps we can get back on our feet, find a flat, stop blaming our ex-wife for turning the kids against us, accept that our plan to date supermodels was unrealistic and that tight jeans don’t flatter us, and work out our new place in the world. A few years of boring wouldn’t be as bad as all that.
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