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Why crazy is the new normal in Brexit Britain

A Brexit protest in March. Photo/Getty Images

In this version of the Eagles’ song, the United Kingdom checks out of the European Union but can never Brexit.

Who knows where the UK will be by the time you read this? Certainly no one in the UK does. Every time I find myself in a room with more than three people, the conversation takes a predictable turn. “It’s madness,” someone will say. Then there will an exploration of the various political options on offer, all of which will be found wanting, followed by general head-shaking and the firmly expressed wish that we could wake up in a different reality – say, for example, in a working democracy.

Here’s a list of events that have had no discernible effect on the current impasse. A million people marched in central London for a second referendum. Six million people signed a petition to revoke Article 50, the mechanism by which the UK voluntarily leaves the EU. Three times Prime Minister Theresa May has placed her withdrawal agreement before Parliament and three times it has been voted down.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Fed up, Parliament announced that it was taking control of procedure and organised indicative votes on eight different ways of dealing with the crisis. All eight were rejected. On March 29, the UK was due to leave the EU. It didn’t happen, because an extension was sought. And in a final attempt to break the deadlock, May issued a terrifying ultimatum: back me or I’ll stay.

Nothing has worked, not even the threat of May continuing as Prime Minister – it’s now widely accepted that she will go down as the worst PM in modern history. It’s also thought by many that her only real hope of escaping this fate is if an election is called and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM – a plodding ideologue who shows every sign of being able to make us nostalgic for May.

May’s announcement that she will step down, but only if she receives backing for her agreement, set the Conservative Party abuzz with its traditional response to crisis: a leadership contest. While offering their public support to embattled May, various of her Cabinet colleagues and MPs were simultaneously briefing journalists, off the record, that they were looking to be her replacement.

The problem most of them face is that they are already implicated in the farce. A typical example is Dominic Raab, said to be among the favourites to take over. Raab was briefly Brexit Secretary, but he resigned in protest at the withdrawal agreement, which he himself had negotiated, and then went on to vote for the very same agreement. How do you dress that sequence of decisions up to look like you know what you’re doing?

It says something about the parlous state of the Tory party that Raab is viewed as a serious contender rather than a total laughing stock. And as I write this, the nation is steeling itself for another week of hands-over-eyes drama, in which the most likely outcome, as with so many previous weeks, is aghast merriment for the watching world.

If no parliamentary agreement is found, the UK will have to seek yet another extension before April 12 to remain in the EU. If that happens, we will almost certainly be participating in the European elections in late May. Yes, that’s right, the two main parties that both committed to leave the EU will be campaigning in a political entity from which we should have already departed

Together, they’ve consigned us to be characters in the Eagles’ Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Once again, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that come April 12, we will be begging the Europeans to delay our exit once more. Madness? Yes, but the really crazy thing is that it’s starting to look normal.  

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.