You’ll get tired of the Not Talking

What if the real Brexit drama was … over a long time ago?

Artillery Row Sketch

Michael Gove came to Parliament on Monday for a return episode of the long-running Westminster game show, Deal or No Deal.

Readers who haven’t obliterated all their memories of the last four years (and goodness knows I wish I could) will recall that the show involves members of parliament trying to decide if they want to take the Brexit prize they’ve been offered, or hold out for a better offer, ideally one including fisheries, at the risk of losing it all.

The twist for the current iteration is that MPs no longer get to decide on this, having handed control over to Boris Johnson in the name of democracy. They are instead in the role of an audience, yelling to the contestant (Gove in this case) to make a deal or hold out for a bigger prize, possibly Calais.

It’s the job of the contestant to make things look as exciting as possible, dabbing his forehead dramatically, chewing his lip, appearing on the point of saying one thing before saying another. Few do this better than Gove, who is a magnificent ham. The European Union’s position was “almost INCREDIBLE,” he told MPs. “They DROPPED a reference to INTENSIVE talks.” When Gove chose politics over accountancy, Surrey Heath Amateur Drama Society lost a fine Malvolio.

The trade negotiations were “in effect ended,” he said. Are they, though? The problem with long-running shows is that the audience realises they’ve seen it all before: the dramatic threats followed by the last-minute return to the table and, phew, a deal in the final seconds.

Still, the show must go on, and Gove is nothing if not a trouper. We should prepare for Australia-type arrangements, he said.

The former prime minister’s incredulity at this point would have been visible from space

Much has been made of the Australian rebranding of “no deal”, but I’ve moved on to being amazed at the way that Gove talks about lorry parks. Listing a load of them that will be built around the country to deal with the queues of truckers waiting to have their papers checked, he concluded: “All of these sites will bring extra jobs and investment to the UK!” That’s right, it’s not traffic, it’s job creation. I’m hoping this language will be adopted more widely, with local radio urging drivers to avoid the Dartford Crossing, due to job creation stretching back as far as Junction Five.

Rachel Reeves, responding for Labour, rushed at it, perhaps because there were so many problems she wished to point out with Gove’s statement. After years of struggle over Brexit, the opposition has landed at an effective approach: to take the government at its word and ask when everything that was promised will arrive. “It’s a question of competence,” Reeves said, mercilessly focusing on the government’s weak spots. “It’s a question of trust.”

As far as No Deal went, “they can call it a Narnia deal as far as I’m concerned,” she said. Narnia, where it’s always talks, but never Brexit.

And then Theresa May rose from the very back bench. The former prime minister seems to be moving further and further from the government. Wouldn’t a no-deal Brexit endanger security cooperation with the EU, she asked?

Gove replied that no cooperation on security was possible while the wicked European Court of Justice was involved. Besides, there were “many, many areas in which we can cooperate more effectively” on security without the EU.

May never had a face to play poker with, and her incredulity at this point would have been visible from space. But Gove had a zinger up his sleeve. He said he agreed with her: “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

The thing is of course that although May said no deal would be better than a bad deal, it turned out she thought her deal was a good deal. Gove too thought May’s deal was a good deal, then thought he could get a better deal, then urged people to vote for an oven-ready deal, but now says no deal would be a good deal.

Still, he also says that an actual deal could potentially be even better than the good deal that is no deal, and to the surprise of no one at all, it turned out that, even as he was speaking, there had been progress. “We have seen a welcome indication of movement on the part of the EU,” he announced. This was a credit to the courage and resolve of our prime minister, he assured us.

There was a time when this sort of thing would have had the currency markets see-sawing, but on Monday they ignored Gove’s statement. They’ve seen this show before, and besides, it’s quite hard to focus on apocalyptic rhetoric when there’s an actual apocalypse happening on the bigger stage.

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