When Boris Johnson declared this week that Theresa May’s new deal would be a ‘Christmas present of the finest old Brussels fudge,’ he embraced one of Brexit’s most enduring motifs: food. This week's Spectator cover story 'Brexit is Served' is full of culinary metaphors. The language of food seems to cross the Brexit divide: Remainers and Leavers are united in their love of food and for good reason: when it comes to food we all have wildly different tastes and it is the same with Brexit. Like Marmite, you either love Brexit or you hate it.
It began with Andrew RT Davies’ promise to the Tory party conference in 2016. ‘Mark my words’, he told delegates, ‘we will make breakfast – Brexit – a success’.
Others soon built on this gastronomical theme. Boris Johnson famously declared at the start of the negotiations that Britain could ‘have its cake and eat it’. But not everyone shared his optimism. There would be no free lunch for Britain, warned former Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern.
In Whitehall, there was yet more pessimism about Brexit. When he stepped down as permanent secretary at the international trade department, Sir Martin Donnelly said that Brexit was like ‘giving up a three-course meal in exchange for the promise of a bag of crisps.’ But was he genuinely ruing Britain’s departure from the EU or unconsciously bemoaning the loss of all those expensed diplomatic dinners in Brussels?
Meanwhile, Brexiteers talked up the idea of falling back on WTO rules in the event of no deal. But former head of the WTO Pascal Lamy said that Brexit was as futile as trying to get an egg out of an omelette – his choice of French cuisine perhaps betraying his European sympathies. Jacob Rees Mogg appeared to wrestle the egg image back again when he dismissed talk of a soft Brexit, saying that ‘an egg that is softly boiled isn’t boiled at all.’
The Brexit talks stalled and began to pass their sell-by-date and so did the food: Elton John compared Brexit to cereal that makes you throw up; comedian James Acaster said that Britain after Brexit would be like an old tea bag you take out and put in the bin.
As Britain kept being rebuffed at the negotiating table by Brussels the metaphors became increasingly fantastical. The People’s Vote in September released a video of Richard Wilson ordering a ‘Brexit special’ in a restaurant only to be told that it hadn’t been made yet and didn’t in fact exist.
Indeed, Brexit has a sense of the fantastical laced into its very etymology: it is a portmanteau – a term coined by Lewis Carroll to describe a nonsensical word formed from two ordinary ones. Our decision to accept it as the defining term for our EU departure betrays Theresa May’s failure to set a vision for life after the EU. Her now immortal words ‘Brexit means Brexit’ left the word wide open for others to define. It is ironic – some would say prescient – that Brexit is a close cousin of the now defunct phrase, ‘Grexit’ – an event which never came to pass.
How different the situation could have been if our prime minister had sought to give Brexit a distinctive flavour from the start. Instead what we are left with is a bland menu of half-baked deals from which even her own party refuses to order.