Boris Johnson just stumbled across the perfect Brexit analogy

by Jane Clifton / 24 September, 2017
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Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

Meanwhile, finding a way out of the Brexit maze looks almost impossible.

Writing last week about Britain’s painful withdrawal from the European Union, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said his country wasn’t going to “sit down on the floor and cry – like some toddler lost in the maze at Hampton Court”.

Actually, that may be the perfect analogy for Brexit, and the only possible rational response to it.

As we await our election result – in a zone of Electoral Act no-speakies – it may be therapeutic to contemplate another country’s political shenanigans for a change, and they don’t come more engagingly bonkers than Brexit (unless you count the goings-on in Washington, but they’re more traumatising than therapeutic).

So, to describe the situation in a way that even a toddler might understand, Britain is Winnie-the-Pooh, wedged in great tightness in a hole, unable to leave or remain with any dignity. Rabbit and his Friends-and-Relations, to whom the hole belongs, wish the damned bear would get on with it, having been a very rude house guest of late. Pushed and pulled, but unable to advance, Britain will eventually waddle off, regardless of whether this move is good for it or not. Like poor old Pooh Bear, Britain is on course to lose some stuffing, in forsaken trade and growth, and have some seams come apart on a couple of limbs, as a result of Scottish and Irish intransigence.

Irrevocable steps

Britain’s politicians and population remain divided on whether to stay or go and how to do either. Irrevocable steps have been taken to leave – even though no one entirely understands them legally yet.

From here, it looks like a face determined to divorce its nose, even if it risks having its ears drop off. The outcomes that pro-Brexit people were told they could have when they voted to leave cannot possibly be delivered. Brexiteers wanted two major freedoms: the ability to be rid of open-ended EU immigration, and to get out from under the yoke of the – admittedly, sometimes oppressive – EU and European Court of Justice (ECJ) rules.

Now it’s clear, as it was not before last year’s referendum, that neither goal is legally, politically or economically achievable. If Britain wishes to continue to trade with EU countries – and both it and they need trade to continue – then it must keep abiding by many of the EU and ECJ rules. These include, at the very least, having no power to eject a single one of the already nine million EU people living in Britain.

A whole slew of other factoids from the pro-Brexit campaign also turn out to have been wrong, so the country made its democratic decision on the basis of what any decent Brit would call bollocks. Perhaps the classic was the economic drain of all those EU freeloaders. In fact, EU workers are net fiscal contributors. Britain would be poorer if they all suddenly naffed off, as requested.

From this part of the world, it’s easy to exclaim: why the hell doesn’t the Government just admit all this and give people a fresh chance to vote on EU membership, on the now-verifiable facts rather than discredited propaganda?

Alas, that option is as dangerous as impeaching President Donald Trump would be in the US. Brexit and Trump arise not just because of facts, but on the strength of feelings and beliefs. People are allowed to vote on the latter, and disregard the former. That’s democracy – albeit perhaps not at its finest.

Mired in sundry feuds: British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo/Getty Images

Mired in sundry feuds: British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo/Getty Images

Disastrous civil unrest

The Wind in the Willows can help us here. Even if Toad Hall’s peaceable creatures could wrestle Mr Toad’s latest grandiose scheme to the floor, outside are the Weasels and Stoats who experience the world differently, and have a few awkward points to make. The Wild Woods are not feeling the love either side of the Atlantic these days. Jobs, healthcare, housing, education, crime are not looking too flash for your workaday mustelid, who justifiably has firm views about which class of creature has put the historically mighty Britain and the US at risk.

Were Trump dispatched, the US would have disastrous civil unrest, and the same would be true of Britain, even if the whole Parliament agreed to a fresh referendum. Despite the evidence, many people simply don’t believe the impediments to breaking free of the EU are that serious. Even what may seem like the ultimate deal-breaker – that Britain, as assessed by most orthodox economic authorities, will be poorer post-Brexit – won’t wash. Brexiteers counter that it’s not about money. It’s about sovereignty and a sense of national pride.

Prime Minister Theresa May, having been – narrowly – re-elected to implement a policy she doesn’t believe in, is now mired in sundry feuds with key figures in her riven Cabinet and party over how to do it. That’s before even commencing unpleasantries with the hard-nosed EU chiefs, who are determined to make an example of Britain lest Brexit prove exportable to other members.

To make sure the militant Remainers can’t thwart her, she has stacked Westminster’s select committees and truncated the Opposition’s parliamentary time. Her Brexit-enabling legislation makes our old Economic Stabilisation Act look like something a hippy version of Sir Geoffrey Palmer wrote for our protection.

May is expected to announce a €20 billion alimony offer shortly, which is likely to be met with the first of many haughty “Non/nein!” responses from Euro-chiefs. Naughty Boris is assisting by excavating unbraced tunnels beneath her every move while saying, “Shovel? What shovel, old fruit?”

This rust-creep-style leadership bid may yet have to morph into a strategic martyrdom. Johnson was the lovable rogue who probably did the most to saddle Britain with Brexit. But rather than saddle himself with it if it looks like getting too messy, he may manoeuvre himself into a righteous sacking by continuing to point out how badly May is progressing it.

Even so, Brexit could work out. Continuing trade is in the interest of all parties. There will be new deals. It’s just that, as one Twitter wit observed recently, to do things this way is akin to cancelling Netflix and personally negotiating the rights to watch each movie with its producer “to get the best deal for my family!”.

We can only wish them the best of British.

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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