In October of 2005, at least two things were happening. David Cameron – the future architect of the Brexit referendum – was running against David Davis – the future failed Brexit Secretary – in the Tory leadership contest. And on Channel 4, veteran television presenter Noel Edmonds, a man who had spent the early part of the decade completely washed-up, was debuting a new quiz show, Deal or No Deal.
By the end of August, 2016, at least two things had happened. David Cameron had resigned as UK Prime Minister following the victory of the Leave campaign. Meanwhile, Edmonds' show had just been quietly cancelled – after an initially hugely successful 11-year run.
At first, nobody noticed that there might be something suspicious going on here. At the time, I don't think anyone would have even begun to suggest that these two careers – David Cameron's time at the top of UK politics; Edmonds' random-box-guessing game show career comeback – might have been linked. But nowadays, I'm not so sure. Nowadays, I'm beginning to wonder if this wasn't all part of some grand plot to get the British public to Do Hard Brexit.
Consider the evidence. This week, the news has been full of dire warnings that the UK could be facing, come the end of March, 2019, the possibility of a "No Deal Brexit", in which we crash out of the EU on deeply unfavourable World Trade Organisation terms.
From the perspective of ordinary political rationality, No Deal would be a disaster. There are reports the government might be stockpiling food and medicine; others warn that ordinary people could lose access to such staples as cheese. Queues are set to cripple the ports of Dover and Calais, and major employers such as Jaguar and Airbus are threatening to move jobs and investment overseas. The head of Amazon UK is even warning of the possibility of "civil unrest". This might sound like the sort of thing you'd be looking to bring about if you're running some sort of nihilistic anti-government cell, but not if you're "the natural party of government" in one of the world's largest economies.
And yet. Theresa May – she of "Strong and Stable Government in the National Interest" fame – started out the process of negotiating to leave the European Union by declaring that "no deal is better than a bad deal". A number of the more hardline Tory Brexiteers seem to be actively manipulating the parliamentary processes surrounding Brexit in order to secure "No Deal". Meanwhile, among voters, the idea that failing to strike any sort of deal with the EU would be preferable to signing an unfavourable one remains remarkably persistent, with over half of Leavers claiming, even despite the warnings, that they would prefer No Deal to any other option.
The question then is why? Why would people be willing to bring something so manifestly disastrous down upon their own heads?
The answer must be: someone – or something – has been conditioning the British public, possibly for years, to think that not striking a deal is a Good Thing. And when you think about it, that someone/something can only be: Noel Edmonds.
Remember the show. Remember Deal or No Deal. Remember how completely, bafflingly strange it was. Remember how every aspect of the game was almost completely random, how it involved no skill more complicated than pointing and nodding – but remember how, despite this, Edmonds always insisted on talking as if players could employ various "strategies" to make the boxes open and reveal what they wanted. Remember how the "banker" (who I'm sure was, at least most of the time, just a voice in Edmonds' head) would send the players various offers of what were, all things considered, quite impossibly generous sums of money. Remember how the players would almost always turn those sums down, and then the audience and everyone else would applaud. Remember how, as the game went on, Edmonds would always work to whip the audience up into a frenzy in which they were hoping, praying, that the contestant would continue to irrationally trust in their box, no other, containing the biggest banker-beating sum of money; that it would prove to be their "destiny" to take the jackpot home today.
In short, Edmonds spent the entirety of every show encouraging the player to do No Deal with the banker, and this was almost always coded as the best, bravest and most morally laudable thing to do. And this show's run just so happened to coincide, almost exactly, with the period in Conservative politics in which the party alternately ran gleefully and sleep-walked towards obliging the country to leave the EU.
Edmonds' persona on Deal or No Deal reflected his belief in "cosmic ordering" – a style of positive thinking originally pioneered by a German guru called Bärbel Mohr, in which you're basically just supposed to get whatever you want by wishing for it hard enough. Edmonds took up cosmic ordering after Noel's House Party was cancelled in 1999, when he was at his lowest ebb – and he credited it not only for Deal or No Deal, but also his relationship with his third wife. Edmonds' belief in cosmic ordering has since convinced him that death does not exist, and that his late parents are in fact perched constantly on his shoulders in the form of melon-sized energy balls.
"If you want to be happy," Edmonds has claimed, "you need to think of yourself as a container of energy. There is a universal energy, yes of course, it embraces us." According to Edmonds, "you cannot destroy energy", and when you die, your energy returns "to where it came from – part of a massive, incomprehensible universal web of energy".
Cosmic ordering can be understood as a form of what the critical theorist Theodor Adorno called "occultism" – his term for the dull, suburban, petty irrationality also exhibited by cold readings and past-life flashbacks, tarot-reading and newspaper horoscope sections. According to Adorno, occultism is a way for people who are basically powerless – workers under capitalism – to feel as if they have ultimate power over the universe. They obtain this power by gaining some knowledge of a supernatural, "spiritual" realm wholly separated from the physical, material realm of causes – a realm that, of course, official science, the powers-that-be, wants to hide from them.
No Deal Brexit represents a form of occultism in exactly this way. The No Deal Brexiteer says: we can't believe in experts. The No Deal Brexiteer says: we've got to have faith in ourselves. The No Deal Brexiteer says: if we just shut out the negative energy and stick to our guns, the universe will give us what we want. Everything will work itself out.
This may well have been a productive strategy when competing in a televised guessing game. If you did in fact have the jackpot box, for instance, it would have definitely helped you (if you didn't, it wouldn't, but you know – it's not like you're risking anything by going on the show). But when it comes to No Deal Brexit, the UK is already, definitely, nailed-on to lose. No Deal does not represent the possibility that we will "beat" the banker.
In fact, the name itself is completely misleading, since No Deal is, very much, still a deal. As people have been constantly pointing out for almost two years now, No Deal still involves an agreement with the EU – namely to leave it, along with the customs union, and switch to those bad World Trade Organisation terms.
With No Deal Brexit, the UK would still remain subject to a rule-governed international order: it's just that it would now get vastly shittier rules, that it would now suddenly lack any power to change. And so the fantasy must vanish, as soon as it is grasped. What did "winning" even look like anyway? Who the fuck knows? Maybe only the disaster capitalists the Tory hard right is in thrall to ever did.
And yet, for all this, I think we've learned something. If No Deal Brexit is really motivated by a worldview that is, at heart, completely irrational, then trying to convince people to oppose it with good, sensible reasons must be fruitless. If we want to stop No Deal, we have to find some totally wild, irrational reason to either stay in the customs union or not to Leave the EU at all. Mystic, cosmic Remainers – over to you.