Everyone on the sidelines has finally agreed they can
go, but now the participants on field are refusing to leave. They seem to echo
what Jimmy Durante described in the words, “Did you ever get the feeling that
you wanted to go, But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay”. That is
one way of perceiving the progress of Brexit at the Mother of Parliaments in
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a brief glimpse of victory on October 22 as his bill to take the UK out of the European Union was passed for a second reading. Minutes later, he suffered his umpteenth defeat when his programme to pass the bill was voted down. For the moment, he has been stymied in his increasingly desperate efforts to cut the UK loose by October 31.
Anyone else in Britain’s hottest seat would most probably have left long ago, beaten by the humiliation of unending rejection, but not Johnson who tries to follow his idol Winston Churchill whose style was to “keep buggering on”. Churchill would probably be awed by Johnson’s capacity for punishment but his persistence could hardly be called his finest hour even by the charitably inclined. The divisions he has created in the train wreck that Brexit has become since the heady days of the 2016 referendum are coming back to haunt him.
The reckless lies and turnarounds, the blithe betrayals of friends, allies and his own promises are adding up. In his brief three-month tenure he has lost all but one vote in Parliament, over 20 party MPs, even Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party whose support gave the Conservatives the vital margin to form a government after the defeat of 2017. Prospects of an ultimate victory look bleak as no one, including close colleagues, trusts him now. They stick with him because for them, too, Brexit has become like the Grail quest. Achieving it will take them to the Promised Land, they believe.
The empirical evidence contradicts this premise but, like the Bible belters who reject Darwin, the Tories refuse to let the facts faze them. Business leaders have often expressed their worries on Brexit. “Fuck business,” Johnson snapped at them last year. Keeping the faith is more important than maintaining the supply lines. The economy has been sluggish for a year amid the uncertainty and experts warn that a no-deal Brexit (Johnson’s preferred option) would slice about 3 per cent off economic growth over the next three years. That would entail massive job loss and recession. The British people “have had enough of experts”, Michael Gove said during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016. He is still of the same mind and in charge of preparations for a no-deal Brexit. The spirit of Dunkirk will see them through.
The dislocations caused by Britain’s impending exit from the EU have opened up many of the old divisions. White supremacist sentiment is rising and it has led to increased race baiting, fear and loathing of foreigners of every colour. Scottish independence aspirations (defeated in a 2014 referendum) are reviving, along with Welsh regionalism, fears of a revival of Irish terrorism if there is a hard border with Northern Ireland. Anxieties that Brexit will erode workers’ rights have grown as well. Ordinary Britons had for the most part stoically endured the Tory years of austerity that stripped welfare services to the bone in the hope that it was cyclical. The millions who voted to remain in the EU now feel doubly betrayed by their own representatives. This is a poisonous brew of competing hatreds that will take years to reconcile even if Brexit is completely painless. All the indications point to nothing but pain for Britain. But Johnson and company know differently.
How does the Promised Land look? There is a good chance Scotland will hold a second independence referendum and win. Over 70 per cent of Scots voted to stay in the EU. Wales, too, could follow, leaving Northern Ireland and England as the holdouts, free to make great trade deals with the rest of the world. It would be a country half the size of Uttar Pradesh, a nuclear weapons state and a permanent member of the UN. But it will be free of the Brussels oppression and strategically placed to be the laundromat of choice for the oligarchs, petrocracies and kleptocrats of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. The best is yet to come for Johnson and friends. What about the rest? They could always become part of the service sector that permanently revolves around the ultra rich and the ultra corrupt.