Brexit: Trapped inside a fatal metaphor for UK departure

London Letter: Perils of travelling through the city and not being a member of the club

“After careening wildly to the right across a number of lanes, the former cabinet minister swerved left before stopping in the middle of the road.” Photograph: Getty Images

“After careening wildly to the right across a number of lanes, the former cabinet minister swerved left before stopping in the middle of the road.” Photograph: Getty Images

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We were leaving a party in an inaccessible corner of central London and the former cabinet minister’s offer of a lift home was generous and welcome. We were so busy arguing about the backstop that it took me a while to notice that every time we turned a corner, it was with a sharp jerk followed by a tumult of screaming horns and squealing brakes.

“Oh, we’re on the Edgware Road are we? My goodness,” he said.

A Conservative Remainer, the former minister sketched out his solution for the backstop, which would write into the withdrawal agreement a commitment to agree a successor arrangement that would kick in by a specific date. I told him that was more or less what his government was proposing.

“How very clever of them,” he said.

We had found our way to Baker Street, crisscrossing lanes, stopping abruptly and changing direction with no warning, with him shouting “shut up” in response to the protests from other drivers.

He was sympathetic to Ireland’s concerns about the Border and fairly unsentimental about the Union but he couldn’t understand why the Government decided to adopt such a high-stakes, uncompromising approach. Wasn’t there a risk that we would push Britain into a no-deal Brexit that would damage the Irish economy and possibly lead to a hard border?

National security

I set out all the arguments about the peace process and how anything that undermined it was a threat to the economy as well as to national security. But I could see I was boring him and thought I’d better liven things up.

“Anyway, nobody in Europe thinks you have the stomach for no deal,” I said.

Swerving towards a bus on our left, he told me that was a grave miscalculation and that there was a limit to the humiliation a country like Britain could accept. He thought Michel Barnier’s approach to the negotiations was both ideological and legalistic in its inflexibility about the rules of the single market.

“What was it that Harold Nicolson said about missionaries, fanatics and lawyers making the worst kind of diplomats? Barnier is all three,” he said.

Whirl of vehicles

We had joined the whirl of vehicles around Hyde Park Corner and the confusion of lanes and traffic merging from Park Lane and Piccadilly proved too much for the former minister. After careening wildly to the right across a number of lanes, he swerved left before stopping in the middle of the road. I felt trapped inside a fatal metaphor for Brexit.

“Right, where are we going? That’s the trouble when you’re having such an interesting conversation. Left? Right? Straight ahead, you think? Shut UP!”

When I got home, I took down The Evolution of Diplomatic Method, based on Nicolson’s lectures on diplomacy from the Greeks to 20th-century multilateralism. When he wrote that the chief fault of the democratic diplomacy of the Greek city states was its uncertainty, he might have been talking about Britain’s negotiating team for Brexit.

“Not only were their diplomatic missions composed of delegates who betrayed each other, but the final decision rested with an Assembly whose members were ignorant, volatile and swayed by emotions of fear, vanity and suspicion,” he said.

Suspicion

Last Wednesday evening, former British ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers gave a lecture at Trinity College Cambridge characterising Brexit as a revolution against the British and European ancien regimes. Two years after the revolution, it had started to eat its own, so that moderate Brexiteers such as Michael Gove are now viewed with suspicion by former comrades.

“Whether we have reached the point where Mr Gove and acolytes get condemned by the pinstriped Robespierres of the Committee of Public Safety – or is it the European Research Group? – for insufficient revolutionary fervour, and being, like some latter-day Danton, in the pay of foreign powers, I do not know,” he said.

Rogers said it had taken the Brexiteers more than two years to understand that Britain’s national objectives and preoccupations were more or less the same now as before the 2016 referendum. But an arrangement that protects the British economy and jobs and keeps trade with the EU “frictionless” is not available within the red lines Theresa May set out two years ago.

“As Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg PM, summarised Brexit in a sentence better than anyone: ‘They were in with a load of opt-outs. Now they are out and want a load of opt-ins.’ Spot on. The last 28 months have also been a discovery process for the British political class. It does not work like that. Flexibility is much, much harder to elicit when you are out than when you are in. And the club you are leaving is not going to alter its rules and do things which are wholly unprecedented for a non-member, simply because you used to be a member,” he said.

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