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Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Photo/Getty Images

Even Shakespeare couldn't have dreamed up the Brexit tragedy

To be or not to be (in the EU). Turns out that was the easy question compared with finding the exit.

There’s a line from King Lear that often comes to mind when I think about Britain’s present political plight. “The worst is not,” says Edgar on encountering his father, who’s just had his eyes gouged out, “so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”

Not the most uplifting thought, I’ll admit, but a handy one to remember when each day, and sometimes each hour, seems to bring news of a new turn of events that makes you nostalgic for yesterday or an hour ago.

Today, as I write, Boris Johnson is meeting the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to discuss the UK’s Brexit deal. Nothing unusual about that. After all, such talks have been going on for more than three years. The difference is Johnson announced before the meeting that he would not postpone Brexit beyond the October 31 – Halloween – deadline.

However, before his controversial prorogation of Parliament went into effect, Parliament managed to stage a vote that demanded that Johnson ask for another extension to the deadline if no agreement was forthcoming. So that’s another constitutional crisis to consider before I’ve had breakfast.

At the time of writing, the Supreme Court was sitting to consider whether Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was illegal. The Scottish High Court found that it was. Let’s just say the outcome is unlikely to add to a sense of national unity and smooth statecraft.

Meanwhile, former prime minister David Cameron, the man whose brilliant idea it was to hold the Brexit referendum in the first place, is publishing his memoirs. The preview extracts accuse Johnson of lying about Brexit and backing the Leave campaign solely as a way of advancing his career. These are not new accusations, by any stretch, but they carry a good deal more weight coming from Johnson’s former colleague and boss.

And the Liberal Democrats, a party that only a few years ago was in danger of disappearing from the face of British politics, has announced that, if it wins the election that everyone is expecting, it will revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. Its previous policy was to call for a second referendum, but so excited have party leaders become by the surge in support from Remainers that they’ve decided to ignore democratic formalities and dismiss the 2016 referendum as if it had never taken place.

Long-standing Liberals who are not drunk on their own righteousness have warned that this would lead to even greater division than already exists. Fortunately, it’s an academic debate, because the Lib Dems have next to no chance of forming a majority government. Still, it’s a sign that people have gone so far into their separate silos that they can no longer hear the counterargument.

Looking at the sheer confusion and fudge of the Labour Party’s new position, you can understand why compromise has become a dirty word. Recently, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, appeared on the UK’s leading political show, Question Time, to explain Labour’s policy on Brexit. If they win power, she said, they will reach a new, more European-friendly deal with the EU, hold a second referendum and then campaign against the deal they have negotiated.

Needless to say, the poor woman looked like she’d been asked to set forth a contradiction within a paradox to arrive at a negation. And yet, compared with what everyone else is promising, it almost looks like common sense.

It’s often noted here that no playwright or film-maker has managed to make a decent drama out of this crisis. No wonder. It would take a Shakespeare to do it justice. To be or not to be (in the EU), that is the question. At the moment, there is no good answer.

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.