Less than a day after Britain lost its role as head of two of the EU’s most important – and lucrative – regulatory agencies, along with its sole judge on the international court of justice, a handful of hardline Tory Brexiters and Ukip MEPs gathered in Westminster to reassure themselves that Britannia still ruled the waves. Otherwise known as the Deal or No Deal conference. Where any deal option was very much only for wimps. The only good EU was a dead EU.
“Never underestimate the ability of a few plucky negotiators to get a good deal,” said the international trade minister, Greg “Unsafe” Hands, in the opening speech. Just in case any member of the audience should take this to mean he thought a deal might be in the offing, Unsafe was quick to remind everyone he was neither plucky nor even competent. Unsafe has the singular knack of appearing so eager to please whoever he happens to be talking to that you wouldn’t trust him not to change his mind by the end of a sentence.
Everything would be fine, he said, because we had nine trade commissioners. Unsafe took this as a sign his department was working flat out to ensure Britain became a great global trading country after Brexit. Bigger than the US even. Much as they all wanted to believe this, not everyone was wholly convinced. The president of the National Farmers’ Union wanted reassurance that Brexit would not mean that food standards would be lowered. Unsafe hummed and hahed. Maybe we could cut and paste some safeguards. Or maybe not. Chlorinated chicken wasn’t so bad, was it?
Next up was the Brexit secretary. “I sit unambiguously on the deal side of the argument,” he began, somewhat nervously. It’s not often that David Davis finds himself in the position of being one of the more moderate people in any room and he was fearful for his safety.
There again, Davis seemed nervous about saying anything about anything. His entire mission appeared to be to get through his 15-minute speech without mentioning anything of any interest to anyone. Not hard, though it did require a certain suspension of disbelief.
The EU talks weren’t deadlocked, he insisted. Huge progress had been made. Take Northern Ireland. No matter that Britain was making two contradictory, incompatible, demands over leaving the single market and not wanting a hard border – we were now in touching distance of a solution. If you had unimaginably long arms. All that needed to happen was that the EU had to come round to our way of thinking. Even if we didn’t know what we were thinking about.
In his eagerness not to take any questions from the media about what agreement the cabinet may or may not have reached over improving its offer to the EU to advance the Brexit talks, Davis rushed out the room, falling over a power cable on the way. He then holed himself up in a private room, refusing to come out for more than half an hour. It wasn’t the time or place to let on that the government was happy to stump up £40bn. This particular audience would go berserk at such a figure. Especially if he had to let them know it still might not be enough.
Liberated from his former role as a junior Brexit minister the grumpy Tory backbencher David Jones was free to give the EU a piece of his mind. Britain had voted to leave the EU and the EU could go to hell. The audience perked up a little. This was much more the fighting talk they had come to hear.
The EU was deliberately obstructing the talks, he said, by insisting on treating article 50 as a legal framework rather than as something to haggle over. And for not guessing what it was we wanted. Typical, cheating foreigners who couldn’t be trusted. Even if they were to agree to progress the talks in December they were probably lying. So we should take “the solemn decision” to tell the EU to sod off now.
“Hear, hear,” several people harrumphed. Warming to his theme Jones went on to extol the virtues of trading on WTO terms. Just because no other country – with the possible exception of Mauritania – traded on WTO terms because they were so punitively rubbish, there was no reason Britain couldn’t make a success of them. Because we were British. And Britons never, never, never would be slaves.
- John Crace’s new book, I, Maybot, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £6.99, saving £3, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.