Nick Cohen

This is Brexit’s La La Land moment

This is Brexit’s La La Land moment
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From Venezuela to Zimbabwe, the noise that defines failing states is the wail. It’s not our fault, their leaders cry. We are the victims of a foreign conspiracy, fifth columnists and saboteurs. The most obvious and least discussed consequence of last night’s capitulation by the British Prime Minister to the right of her party is that the Tories are building a conspiracy theory of their own, as they prepare to whine and blame everyone but themselves for the crisis they have brought on Britain. If it is teaching us nothing else, Brexit has at least shown us that 'taking back control' never means taking on responsibility.

The events of this week ought to have stripped the last illusions from innocents who thought the British ruling class retained a residual competence: that someone, somewhere knows what they are doing. The right compelled the Government to reopen an agreement it assured us could not be reopened, and to threaten the Irish peace agreement, the one act of statesmanship politicians from the previous generation could look on with pride.

The sight of Theresa May voting against her own deal was merely an appetiser. She has no strategy or hope of success. She is going to the chancelleries of Europe to demand they submit to demands she previously declared could not be met. Britain has had more abject prime ministers in its history but never a more ridiculous one. The clichéd insult of “U-turn” does not even begin to cover what Theresa May has done. Drivers, after all, know where they are going when they turn their cars round.

Conservatives and quite a few Labour politicians assure us that Brussels will blink and fall for a technological solution that doesn’t exist; a solution which the record shows is as much a mystery to the Government as everyone else. In the House of Commons last night and on the radio today, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, was asked what the alternative to the Irish backstop was. He could not answer the question.

The pretence of May and her Government, that an agreement they declared impossible was possible, and the willingness of the House of Commons to declare it did not want no deal and then vote down all attempts to prevent no deal, shows that we are now in Brexit’s fantasy stage: the La La Land moment when the movie screen spins, the music swells and the characters dance into a dream sequence.

Out of calculation or wilful ignorance, David Davis tells the limitlessly credulous right that, ‘The EU has a lot more to lose than we have. There will be pressure on them to come back to the table.’ This is simply not true, and I and many others must be wondering why we ever fell for this man back in the day when he posed as the defender of the rights of Parliament and our civil liberties. The EU knows that a crash out will hurt Britain first and foremost. More to the point, it knows that all the pressure is on Britain. May must report back to Parliament in February. The EU need do nothing except wait as the panic spreads.

Rather than finally face realities, the right has been frantically constructing an excuse for that moment. It may be clueless about Britain’s place in the world, and our economic and security needs, but it can still draw on a reservoir of low cunning. Dominic Raab said of no deal to the BBC, ‘This is a choice the EU will have made.’ Or as Tim Montgomerie explained: ‘The focus of the British press should now turn to the intransigence of Brussels...and Dublin.’ I will spare you a dissection of the grotesque spectacle of British commentators, who have known only comfort, damning the uppity Irish for presuming to struggle against the return of violence to their island, and concentrate on the stab-in-the-back theory cynical men are assembling.

If Britain crashes out with no deal, it won’t be their fault: Brussels will have inflicted suffering on a blameless Britain. If, and I know this seems unlikely, parliament compromises and accepts May’s original deal, or keeps us in the Single Market or authorises a second referendum, the politicians will have betrayed ‘the people’. 

The ability to construct stories of victimhood is by far the most significant development of the week. By pretending that the deal she had previously said could not be rewritten can be rewritten, the Prime Minister has opened the door to Weimaresque fictions; indeed she may feel no choice but to spin a few stories of betrayal and victimhood herself.

What will she say if she returns to Parliament empty handed? That she always knew that renegotiating the backstop was impossible, and had promised to go to Brussels on a fool’s errand, so that she might scrape an empty ‘victory’ on a cold, January night in Westminster? That the fault is now and has always been with supporters of Brexit, who have never explained the hard choices and need for compromise to the public? Rather than take responsibility herself, or attack the right of her party, I can see her blaming foreign enemies for domestic failings as surely as Maduro blames America for the hyperinflation, corruption and hunger he and his gang have brought to Venezuela.

I suspect I’m wasting my breath. But it is still worth asking intelligent Conservatives: is this the road you want to go down? And if it is, are you sure you know where it will end?

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics