As the 10-metre fishing boat Holladays R8 – aka HMS Brexit – approached Embankment Pier on the Thames shortly after 8.30am, a Transport for London official came running down the jetty.
“You can’t tie up here,” he yelled.
“Why not?” the skipper shouted back.
“Because you don’t have a permit.”
No one had apparently thought of that when the protest against the government’s concession on remaining in the common fisheries policy for the best part of two extra years had been planned. After someone casually tossed two dead fish overboard to stick it to the Man, the boat motored back into the middle of the river and proceeded to potter round in circles for several minutes. As a metaphor for the futility of Brexit, it could hardly be bettered. Piss up. Organise. Brewery.
On shore, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared rather relieved to see the back of the boat. Although the chair of the European Research Group has positioned himself as the country’s Defender of the Fish, he didn’t seem that keen on getting too up close and personal with a box full of smelly, four-day old haddock. That’s what staff are for.
Looking every bit the City gent in his pin-striped suit, Rees-Mogg had repeatedly told a disappointed press pack that he wouldn’t be throwing any fish into the Thames himself. Or getting on the boat. There were only so many fish you could have out of water at any one time.
Rather he was just there to make a few bad fish puns, to explain why the government’s inability to negotiate made it such a good negotiator and confer his blessing on the proceedings. And on the fish, to let them know their sacrifice had not been in vain. They were the glorious dead. Fallen in the service of Brexit.
“The press conference will be starting in a few minutes,” said a harassed press office for Fishing for Leave. Moments after it had already ended. Rees-Mogg, along with Tory MPs Craig MacKinlay and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who had also spent the whole time looking as if they wished they were elsewhere, was already beetling his way back to Westminster. Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.
Just as it looked as if the whole morning was about to fizzle out, HMS Brexit headed up river to make an unscheduled stop at Westminster Pier, where Nigel Farage stepped out of a taxi and got on board. The former Ukip leader has never found a political stunt that he couldn’t hijack to get himself on TV. If the Tories had suddenly got cold feet about chucking some fish into a river, then he’d do it for them.
For Farage this was not quite euphoric recall. Though it would have to do. Just under two years ago, he had captained a flotilla of fishing boats as they fought a running battle with Bob Geldof in one of the most surreal moments of the EU referendum campaign. It had been his finest hour. Now he was alone, forgotten, unloved. Abandoned even by Labour’s Kate Hoey, who had once stood proudly by his side on that joyous day. This was his chance to woo her back.
Farage had fought the law and the law hadn’t really given a toss. Much like everyone else
After being whistled on board, Farage urged HMS Brexit onwards till it came to a halt in front of a handful of bemused MPs and researchers outside the terrace of the House of Commons. Then nothing much happened for about 10 minutes as Farage waited for a bigger crowd. And Kate.
No one came, so he cut his losses, picked up a couple of fish and chucked them in the river. Then he went for broke and tipped a whole box full of fish overboard. Suck on that, EU and UK government. If that didn’t get their attention then he’d be back tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that to chuck more and more fish in the Thames until there were no fish left in British coastal waters. But he was going to have his work cut out. Not even the lone seagull that was following the boat could be bothered to swoop for a dead freebie. The fish were just too rank.
Up on Westminster Bridge, a passerby asked what was going on. “Nigel Farage is throwing fish in the Thames,” I said.
“Who’s that?” he replied. O tempora, o mores!
As HMS Brexit rocked listlessly on the water a police boat appeared alongside. Farage was thrilled. Martyrdom awaited. Let him be arrested for fly-tipping. But the police seemed more concerned for the wellbeing of all those on board than about any illegality. Farage had fought the law and the law hadn’t really given a toss. Much like everyone else.