The usual suspects
Artillery Row Sketch

You’ll never guess how this ends

You’re in the getting-Brexit-done business

This time last year, a lot of us were making a lot of what turned out to be pretty poor predictions for the coming months. The sketch was under the impression that Sajid Javid was about to deliver a budget, and plenty of people imagined they would be able to go to the pub in April.

Well, that’s the thing about predictions, isn’t it? You never know what’s going to happen to them. But some are obviously doomed even as they’re made, and into that category fall the one being widely offered this time last year: that the government would stop talking about Brexit.

Brexit, went the argument, had been Got Done, and the government was going to Change The Subject.

In a stroke of brilliance, Boris Johnson set out to demonstrate this by getting rid of the Brexit department. No department, no departmental questions, no secretary of state giving interviews! Although at this point last year Downing Street was at war with pretty much every broadcaster except Talk Radio, so no one was giving any interviews anyway.

In the sort of move that somewhat undermines the idea that the BBC lives only to undermine the government, the national broadcaster was even persuaded to rename its BrexitCast show, because, you know, Brexit was over.

And yet.

On Monday afternoon, Parliamentary fans could get Brexit on all channels. The sketch wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sir Bill Cash is no fool, but he’s not fool enough to buy the idea that Brexit is over, and his European Scrutiny Committee, set up to examine EU legislation before it enters into UK law, has decided that it will still have work to do.

It was taking evidence from Michael Gove, who as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is Brexit Secretary in all but name. The questions were ones of intricacy and detail. This sort of thing was problematic for some previous Brexit secretaries. David Davis took the view that details weren’t the sort of things that should trouble a man who had been in the Territorial SAS, a man who could break your neck with a single blow, though ideally on bank holidays and by arrangement.

Details, though, are catnip for Gove, a man who seems to have been at his happiest busking his way through an Oxford tutorial. He had a huge folder in front of him, in what might have been a deliberate contrast to Davis’s habit of turning up to EU negotiations with the words “BMW, prosecco” scrawled on a Eurostar napkin.

Where Davis was permanently bullish, testosterone oozing from his pores, Gove aims for engaging self-deprecation. He doesn’t quite pull it off. Instead, the impression is of someone who has read about humility in a book, and thinks they’d like to try it out.

Much of the discussion was focussed on the EU’s recent confusion over the Irish border. Given that many of the MPs on the committee have for years thought the worst of the EU, they were delighted to have their suspicions confirmed. “Some people might say, with friends like this, who needs enemies?” Cash purred. Gove was, very nearly plausibly, generous, saying that the EU had admitted a mistake.

The conversation turned to Johnson. “Whatever decision the prime minister makes will always be the right one,” Gove stated, close to believably. “I will always do whatever the prime minister asks me to.”

He went on, with something close to authenticity: “The prime minister makes decisions. I do what he tells me to. It’s not the other way round.”

Over in the Commons, George Eustice, the DEFRA Secretary, was talking about why the EU was no longer accepting UK shellfish exports. Eustice has spent most of the last two decades trying to get Britain out of the EU. He now gets to spend his days explaining the consequences of this to people, who turn out to be far less grateful than he’d expected them to be. It’s no wonder he looks so put upon.

 It is clear that Brexit remains firmly under discussion, and very far from the Done box

It was, Eustice explained, all the fault of the perfidious EU. Assurances had been given, and now they were being gone back on. It went down well with Tory MPs. Sheryll Murray wanted the Royal Navy to retaliate by boarding French fishing vessels. The sketch would go further, and send coastal raiding parties down the French coast, with commando units charging into restaurants and forcing diners to eat British oysters at gunpoint. John Redwood on the other hand wanted British people to eat British molluscs, something that was definitely not on the side of any buses.

The counterargument was made by Deidre Brock, an SNP MP who hails originally from Australia. “It’s because they made a bollocks of Brexit,” she drawled, down the line from Edinburgh.

Astonishingly, the Deputy Speaker, Eleanor Laing, let this go past. Perhaps she was confused by the agricultural nature of the session, and thought Brock said “bullocks”. Perhaps she was simply playing Aussie rules.

Perhaps the government will also get away with the latest problems, and the jobs lost will be blamed on the EU. But even so, it is clear that Brexit remains firmly under discussion, and very far from the Done box.

It was left to the Tory Kevin Hollinrake to raise Brock’s choice of words. “I didn’t realise ‘bollocks’ was Parliamentary language,” he said.

Oh Kevin, they speak little else.

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