They say that the ratings for The Brexit Reality Show have gone through the roof (Action, suspense, drama … how Brexit became the latest reality TV hit) and it is little wonder. It is a daily moveable feast of intrigue and insanity, played out before our eyes over and over again.
Most adults tune day after day, hoping, perhaps even expecting, that the instigators will have had their tears before bedtime and will then set out for their appearance in the HOC determined to turn over a new leaf, to act like something resembling adults instead of vindictive babies.
How many times have we seen members stand to ask Mother Theresa May™ a substantive, important question, put forward on behalf of an entire nation, only to hear a reply that might be akin to asking why the member did not bother to shave in the morning or fail to put lemon in his tea?
Just look at the photo above. And the ones below. See the absurd confidence that they are the very centre of the known rational universe? Not only are they convinced they right, but that they do not even bother to question whether or not they have a moral obligation to include anyone -politicians or the public- in a process that could destroy a generation of people who have already suffered a lost generation of careers and earnings and more.
It is insane. And it is Trumpism, isn’t. Is that not the real fear, that Trump has made all of this madness seem almost normal?
And what role has the media played in all of this? Has it been fundamentally different from the weeks and weeks of obsessive TV coverage during the US election campaign, where Trump and his antics were offered as mere entertainments because of course there was no way ON EARTH they would ever ‘allow‘ the train wreck to follow through on a free ride to the White House?
May has been offered the same free train ride, a daily forum for her and her members to spew constant, unquestioned clichés and soundbites about democracy and the power of the people, all the while being allowed, even encouraged, to ignore the very democracy they are pretending to uphold.
There are worse things than being thought of as laughing stocks of an entire world. But not many.
For all the complexity that surrounds how (and, crucially, if) the UK leaves the European Union, the story of how it got into its current situation is actually incredibly simple. The Brexit that Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to engineer, a product of the internal tensions of her own party, was doomed from the start.
Coming to power as she did in the aftermath of the referendum, May made the one decision from which all her other missteps of the last few years would stem: she chose to represent one side, and one side only of the Brexit debate, and used this as the guiding star for her entire approach to Brexit.
From the moment she took office, she drew the reddest of red lines. At her Conservative Party conference speech in 2016, she introduced the mantras that would come to define her. We heard that “Brexit means Brexit”, that Britain would have a bright future as a sovereign nation outside of the EU.
A few months later at Lancaster House, she told the country she aimed to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK. That essentially meant committing to leaving the single market and the customs union. Across these speeches she also introduced into the political lexicon the phrase that has haunted most politicians since – that the “losers” of the 2016 referendum must respect the result as the “will of the people”.
Later still, as prime minister, May called a snap election in the name of helping her deliver Brexit. She openly dismissed anyone opposing Brexit – which at the very least meant the 16.5m who had voted remain – as “playing games with politics”.
In hock to the hardline Brexiteers within her own party, May pushed a for a version of Brexit that would make this small group of around 100 or so individuals happy, regardless of what millions out in the country thought.
The impact of this approach should not be underestimated. It not only polarised the national debate, entrenching the fissures brought forth by the referendum, but it bound May to an approach to Brexit negotiations that rendered her deal dead on arrival. Her commitment to essentially a pure Brexit meant a border between the UK and the EU in Ireland, or a softening of the very parameters she had staked her entire project on. It’s not hard to see how this would end.
Failings across the board
May’s own mishandling of the entire project should form the centre of any analysis of how the UK got where it is now. However, she had many handmaidens helping her along the way.
Indeed, almost all MPs were blindsided by the result of the referendum. They were then rapidly cowed into submission by the “will of the people” mantra. The overwhelming parliamentary support for triggering Article 50 in February 2017 is a great example of this.
But there are individual MPs, and smaller groupings, who would help dye May’s red lines even redder. Of course, the European Research Group (ERG) has been key. Vocal ideologues like Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees Mogg have kept the pressure up, hoping for a hard Brexit. For all their protestations, such a plan has never come close to carrying majority support in parliament.
In addition to the ERG, there are individual politicians who appear to view the whole exercise as one, great political game. Boris Johnson is the example par excellence. He amends his position on May’s deal according only to how it seems to apparently benefit his own leadership aspirations. And Nigel Farage – the most arch of the arch Brexiteers, who played a major role in the Brexit campaign, even if not an official one – continues to make great personal headway out of the whole farrago. He has radio shows, TV appearances, transport in private jets. He has most recently even been seen enjoying jolly japes with his supposed enemies in the EU.
But perhaps the greatest helping hand May has had in limping towards the sad end of her Brexit project has come from the opposition. Blindsided by the fact that many of their constituencies voted Leave, and led by a man who is historically a eurosceptic, Labour has failed throughout the past two years to do the one thing the House of Commons is built to engender. Labour’s approach has been constructive ambiguity.
Though this may now finally be shifting at the eleventh hour, for nearly three years, Labour has neither come out against May’s Brexit or Brexit in general out of fear of its Leave constituents. It has therefore failed to challenge the government on its legislative programme. It has robbed the country of the one thing it needed more than ever in face of a minority government that wasn’t listening – strong and clear opposition.
None of the above is particularly new, or hidden, or opaque: it is there in the historical record, for all of us to see. And it must be seen: to move past the unparalleled failure of May’s Brexit, the UK needs to learn – and quickly – from the woeful mistakes of a woefully unprepared political class.