Lately, the Brexit insiders have taken their ball and run so far off ahead of the public that they’ve stopped explaining anything. No one who isn’t a pro or a crank knows their EFTA from their ECHR.
Worse – Brexit itself is no longer just one story. It’s about six, all happening simultaneously, but in very different locations with very different characters.
Northern Ireland. Trade. The Tory Civil War. The Ultra-Remainers. The Labour Party. And whatever celebrity numbnuts has piped up this week. It’s like solving a jigsaw that’s on fire over the phone.
This column is meant to be the antidote to that. The same questions. The big ones. Every week. Until we either figure it out or Britain falls into the sea. Short and dumb. The Arlene Foster of words.
Anything Happening On Trade?
It's that time: the surreal doomsday moment when we start role-playing a crashing-out. Lovers of imaginary queues were treated to 70 Eddie Stobart trucks, lined up outside the Dover port, meant to simulate the enhanced checks of a No Deal scenario on the 29th of March. No word yet on plans for role-playing of squaddies shooting looters.
There are rumours that May’s team are deliberately dragging their heels on preparations, to force MPs to vote for her Draft Agreement. This theory is given credibility by the saga of Seaborne – the company which bagged a £13 million contract to run ferries to Ramsgate, to take the pressure off Dover. They do not own any ferries, have never operated a ferry route, lifted their terms and conditions from a pizza company’s website, and their CEO recently left Hong Kong trailing sizeable debts.
Welcome to 2019 – we will look back on this in six months and think it was only the piffling foothills of mad.
Are We Going Back to the Semtex Years in Ireland?
Not right now.
Squeaky bum-time is symmetrical: the Irish are now starting to seriously think about what No Deal would mean for their economy, so they’ve been piling pressure back on Angela Merkel to re-negotiate. Irish PM Leo Varadkar has hinted that the EU is "happy to give fresh assurances". Question is: are these legally-binding assurances, or just another fine-sounding declaration? If it’s the latter, we’re back at square one.
Whatever Happened to That People's Vote Thing?
They might have Labour’s backing.
Things are looking up for Alastair Campbell's overturners. Labour's influential Shadow Trade Minister Barry Gardiner said that if the party won a snap election they’d renegotiate, then put that deal to the people. Of course, this being Labour, everyone still seems to be freelancing their own policies, so it’s not quite a binding commitment.
What’s Labour’s Latest Incoherence?
They are blocking a No Deal Brexit that isn’t blockable.
This week, backbench MPs tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill that would make government spending on no-deal measures illegal without Parliament's consent. The Labour leadership soon decided to throw their party behind it, and it passed.
Problem is: this still doesn’t mean we avoid No Deal, which remains on the countdown clock until Parliament passes something else. If the government just carries on regardless, their amendment only adds a layer of needless financial chaos to a Hard Brexit. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t hard enough.
Is May More Toast Than She Was Last Week?
She’s remarkably safe.
The delayed Draft Agreement vote is now due to take place next Tuesday, the 15th of January.
Only one thing is certain: May will lose. But the margin will be crucial. A small loss and she could try again, secure a few crumbs of concession from Brussels, then mop up the extra votes with those fresh assurances.
A big loss and things get very twisted. May can no longer be sacked by her own MPs for 12 months. But she's also promised she won’t contest another general election. So either she immediately goes of her own accord, or she tries to plough on regardless. But now it seems that Parliament is cutting off her escape routes – a sensational rebel amendment has bound her to come back to the House within three days with a new plan.
That means, with no time to negotiate with the EU, and No Deal unpopular, it may be time to kick the can down the road again: a vote to extend Article 50 by six months.
What's the Numbnuts Celebrity Intervention of the Week?
Benedict Cumberbatch's Bald Patch
Brexit: The Uncivil War has been the big hit of the January TV schedules. It served to make an unlikely celebrity of Vote Leave organiser and sinister brainiac Dominic Cummings, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who went round to Cummings' house for dinner, then immediately began morphing into his host. Cummings' wife wrote an account of their uncanny evening:
By 10.30 he was leaning back, just like Dom, glass of red in hand. By 1AM he was a mirror image of his subject. It was a Rorschach blot of a scene. Both men reclining, each with an arm behind their head.