The truth is a stubborn stain. You can place a carpet of lies over it, but it never goes away. You can fill a room with the smoke of fantasy, but reality is still the room where it all happens. Brexit was a lie from day one and we may now be reaching the point at which the smoke finally clears.
In April 2016, Michael Gove really did stand behind a lectern in the offices of Vote Leave and say the following words: “There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave, we will stay in this zone. The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Ukraine would stay part of this free trade area – and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus – is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining Ukip.”
Of course, it is hard to tell whether the threats currently emanating from Number 10 Downing Street – to blow up the withdrawal agreement, pursue no-deal and renege on our international treaty obligations – are real. We have been here before: the proroguing of parliament to take just one example. These wearying, supposedly high-octane moments are the tragic consequence of government by man-baby (the man-baby in question being Dominic Cummings, though there are many to choose from).
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It may well be that a free-trade agreement can still be reached in time, that this little paragraph from Michael Gove will finally be vindicated. But his next words never can be.
He went on to say: "By being part of that free-trade zone, we would have full access to the European market, but we would be free from EU regulation."
It doesn’t take the power of hindsight to point out that this is complete garbage. It was pointed out at the time by BBC fact-checkers and others. It is entirely laughable, but it was on these lies that Brexit was bought and sold.
And yet more lies are required to sustain them. Last September, Boris Johnson went to Dublin, stood next to Leo Varadkar and described the possibility of no-deal Brexit as “a failure of statecraft”.
Now, as his threats of no-deal toward the European Union grow ever louder (which is to say, his threat to blow off his own head and leave them spattered with the consequences), a new soundbite emerges.
No-deal is described as an Australia-style deal, though it describes the complete absence of any kind of deal at all. And it has been backed up by the following words from the prime minister: “I want to be absolutely clear that, as we have said right from the start, that would be a good outcome for the UK.”
What is absolutely clear is that this is a straight-up-and-down, 100 per cent proof, 24-carat lie. What was once a “failure of statecraft” was always, in fact, a “good outcome”.
It is a lie so big that it comes with its own entourage. A great humpback whale of a lie around which other, lesser lies must swim just to keep it clean. Matt Hancock has to go on the radio and say, “We will be leaving with a deal; it’s just a question of which one.”
No-deal is now a deal. The no-deal deal. Except that it’s not. He knows it, and he also knows that eventually everybody will know it.
In four and a half long and grim years, it has been almost permanently speculated and suggested that “the people didn’t know what they were voting for”. This has never been the most persuasive argument. Electoral events are blunt instruments. That the tens of millions of people who vote in them may not all be fully up to speed on the intricate details is priced into the event itself. It’s no basis on which to seek to undermine or void the outcome.
None of us can know the individual motivations behind tens of millions of votes. And the fact that the Brexit that now looks likely to arrive bears no relation at all to anything that was ever promised is probably of scant concern to the vast majority of those who voted for it and would do so again.
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The Brexit we appear to be gearing up to receive is one which liberates Dominic Cummings to invest vast amounts of public money in risky tech start-ups; this was always the entire point of Brexit. This was, in fairness, very much known at the time, though if this was always the end goal, it has been more than a little undermined by Cummings’s own prodigious efforts to make sure the battle was not fought on these terms, but on deliberately incendiary lies about the NHS and Turkish immigration.
The point of all this is to serve Mr Cummings’s own private neuroses, gleaned from long years spent on the internet, that in the future, only countries at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution will be able to shape the future.
I offer no expertise as to his wisdom, other than to observe that for example, France and Germany have not concluded that their only hope for survival in the world of tomorrow is to leave the EU and reinvent themselves as a tech start-up. The coronavirus pandemic and the success that different governments around the world have had in mitigating its effects might be enough to at least consider whether Brexit is evidence of the UK outsmarting everybody else.
It doesn’t always feel that way. If it was all true, it wouldn’t require quite so many lies to enable it.