At this stage of the game, the only dependable feature of the Brexit negotiations is their tawdriness. The Prime Minister, in Brussels this evening, will address her fellow EU heads of government — but not join them for dinner.
Like National Union of Students activists pre-caucusing a meeting, eight senior ministers gathered in Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom’s office on Monday to plan their strategy for yesterday’s official Cabinet meeting — plotting in plain sight, so to speak.
Labour, for its part, has contrived to keep John Bercow in the Speaker’s chair in spite of a new report finding that bullying and sexual harassment have been permitted to thrive at Westminster. Pressed on the Opposition’s priorities, Margaret Beckett said yesterday that “the constitutional future of this country… trumps bad behaviour”. Which is to say, Labour’s hopes of a smooth and orderly transition to office are more important than #MeToo.
Sir John Major warns that, post-Brexit, “much of the world will now perceive Britain to be a middle-sized, middle-ranking nation that is no longer super-charged by its alliances”. In response, Jacob Rees-Mogg sneers: “Pity Sir John Major, who was so heavily rejected by voters in 1997 and has never recovered.” Pity Rees-Mogg, who seems to have forgotten that Major defied the odds in 1992 to win a fourth successive election victory for the Conservatives and served seven years as Prime Minister.
Alongside the low-rent name-calling and manoeuvring, all else is process. For those already confused by the proposed “backstop”, which is supposed to deal with the tortured question of the Irish border post-departure, there is now the “backstop to the backstop”.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, warned the PM yesterday that “the clock is ticking” — as if she didn’t know. In the Commons, the Democratic Unionist Party stands ready to withdraw its support for her minority Government if its “blood-red” conditions are breached.
Focusing on the minutiae of Brexit — as, of course, we have to — we risk losing sight of its sheer scale. We stand around individual trees, bickering, while flames lap at the borders of the forest. Last month Boris Johnson referred to “the gnat of the Irish border problem” — the classic populist trick of pretending that there are easy answers to complex challenges. But consider, too, the former Foreign Secretary’s contempt for the issue itself.
Brexit was sold by its champions — not least Johnson himself — as a historic opportunity for the UK to break free of the supposed manacles of Brussels and flex its muscles once more as a nation. Yet the greatest irony of their success in the referendum is that secession from the EU may yet promote the incremental disaggregation of the UK.
In the case of Northern Ireland, membership of the EU — so crucial to the Good Friday Agreement — has been essential to the subsequent preservation of the Union. The porousness of its border has been a guarantor of the peace. To adapt Johnson’s alleged role model, Winston Churchill: some gnat.
Now, that peace — along with its commercial, social and cultural dividends — is at risk of mutilation by pro-Brexit ideologues who, wrapping themselves in nostalgia, have little sense of history.
"Amid the shuttle diplomacy and skulduggery of the past week there has been a woeful lack of visible statesmanship"
Scotland, too, has achieved comparative constitutional stability as a nation that defines its identity by membership of two unions: the EU and the UK. Last week Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, and David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, made clear their readiness to resign if “the integrity of the United Kingdom” is imperilled by Brexit.
They understand that, for all its flaws, EU membership has been an essential constituent of the fixative holding the Union together. Whatever arrangement emerges from these troubled negotiations must compensate for its absence — if, that is, the Conservative Party still cares about its notionally Unionist origins.
Amid all the shuttle diplomacy and skulduggery of the past week there has been a woeful lack of visible statesmanship; no clear sense of quite how much is at stake. How long can the PM survive? How long can the Government postpone collapse? Does Jeremy Corbyn really understand that Britain is about to leave the EU and that this matters more to the public than agrarian reform in Venezuela?
These are important issues. But they are dwarfed by a single, simple question, no closer to being answered than it was in the disgraceful referendum campaign of 2016: namely, what kind of country do we want to be? What prosperity do we aspire to? How much do we hope to spend on our public services (and how do we intend to staff them)? What sort of environmental protections do we seek?
Do we really believe that leaving the world’s largest single market will enhance our interconnectedness with the rest of the world?
My initial reservations about the wisdom of a people’s vote have been swept away by the conspicuous absence of answers — almost 30 months after the referendum and little more than five before our official departure. It is as though we have collectively decided that a single plebiscite overrides all the other features of an advanced democracy: reflection, wisdom, the right to change one’s mind.
Of one thing I am certain: nobody voted for this epic fiasco. As we long for a moment of defining leadership, those lines of Yeats ring horribly true: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Peering only at the detail and absorbed by the squabbles, we shuffle towards a future that jeopardises so much of what makes us truly British. We shall be, for want of a better phrase, citizens of nowhere.